Developing Solutions to Improve the Future of Youngstown

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Anthropology major Grace Persing is a lifelong resident of the Mahoning Valley and wants to do her part to help drive prosperity in the region.

“I’ve seen Youngstown go through a lot of ebbs and flows,” she says. “I wanted to do something to change it.”

For starters, the Youngstown State University student sought a summer internship that partners YSU, the city of Youngstown and the Economic Action Group.

The initiative – the Civic Innovation Transforming Youngstown, or CITY, Internship Program – is designed to challenge students to develop creative solutions that address some of the most visible problems of the region.

Persing was among nine current students and three incoming freshmen at YSU who were awarded paid internships over the summer. The students were tasked with developing new ideas and tools that tackle issues such as sidewalk deterioration, the lack of access to healthful foods, and small-business development.

“I was so excited to get this internship,” she says. “I was really invested in this.”

On Aug. 2, these students presented the results of eight weeks of work in which they identified and formulated proposals to help the city find solutions to these issues.

The 12 students were divided into three groups of four and assigned to work with various city departments and agencies: the Community Planning and Economic Development Department, the Engineering & Construction Department and the nonprofit Healthy Community Partnership.

The internships are funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, says Hazel Marie, distinguished professor in mechanical engineering and principal investigator on the NSF grant.

A goal of the program, established by the University of Notre Dame nine years ago, is to harness the talent of university students to help with the revitalization of economically distressed cities such as Youngstown, she says.

“It is a true collaboration between interns working in city and regional projects,” Marie said.

Micro Business Development

Persing’s group focused on gathering data and producing strategies for small businesses to establish themselves and thrive within the city.  “Our group was working on trying to find a way to bring small businesses in,” she says. “But in a sustainable way.”

Persing, along with students Aailiyah Jackson, Jayanta Pandit and Stylianos Pateras, developed a market analysis and interactive map to help potential businesses considering Youngstown as a location.

The study presented an examination of businesses in the city for the years 2017 and 2022 that included market saturation, growing and declining markets, income demographics, and age demographics.

The group was able to synthesize available data into a color-coded interactive map that displays all zip codes across the city. When a user clicks on a particular ZIP code in the city, the map will display information such as what type of businesses would work, or not work, in the selected area. It also displays potential business needs in the area based on the area’s market dynamics and demographics and whether neighbors would patronize or want such a business.

“This is an incredibly useful resource for those trying to start their own businesses to grow and prosper without any failures,” Pateras said.

As a case study, the group presented data gleaned for the 44509 ZIP code along Mahoning Avenue, where there is some new development underway just west of the Mahoning Avenue bridge.

The group selected a vacant building at 1540 Mahoning Ave.  Based on the data compiled for that area, the building could be used for a variety of businesses: a first-floor laundromat and second-floor arcade; rental space for an early-stage business and an established business on the second floor; or a thrift store and beauty salon.

Sidewalk Evaluations

A second group – composed of students Dominic Adams, Tien Hoang, Alyssa Ruggles and Kathleen Sullivan – devised a method of assessing the deterioration of sidewalks throughout the city.

“Essentially, the sidewalk conditions in Youngstown are depreciating and they’re not good,” Adams, a political science major, says. The challenge was to develop a means to collect data and rate sidewalk conditions.

The solution was to develop a data collection device that is used by a team that can drive and survey an area, Adams says. The tool, called the Arduino system, is able to connect with a GPS module and lock in the site coordinates along with a prescribed rating – one being the worst conditions and five the best. “The program and code we developed ourselves,” he says.

The data are fed into a spreadsheet and then translated into color-coded heat maps, identifying problem areas in the city.

Using the device, the team was able to efficiently survey a portion – approximately one-third — of the 6th Ward over the eight weeks. The data were presented to the city as a tool to help direct funding for sidewalk repairs to the areas most in need.

“With skilled use, this can be used to survey any area,” Adams says. “It’s not just specific to sidewalks, either. It could be used for roads or greener areas.”

Access to Healthful Foods

The third group of students was presented with the challenge of developing a plan to help to alleviate one of the most critical issues the city faces: food insecurity.

“Our solution was a blended food co-op,” says Thomas Hunyadi, a sophomore at YSU.

Hunyadi, along with Nathan Gostey, Kaziah Boudrey, and Praise Olufemi, devised a two-pronged effort – a food hub that supports local farmers to get their produce into local stores and a board-operated co-op grocery store that combines local producers and wholesale healthful products for the community.

“The main goal of the food hub is to make it more accessible for local farmers to sell their produce in the local community,” Hunyadi says. The hubs would act as distribution points for that and could serve convenience stores and grocers with locally grown fresh produce.

Hubs would also distribute regionally grown and wholesale foods as well so they could sustain the operation year-round, Hunyadi says.

“It would be able to buy in bulk and distribute to smaller convenience stores that are all over Youngstown,” he says. “The main problem the city is having is that convenience stores are not set up to accommodate produce in large numbers. A food hub would be able to tackle that problem.”

A second aspect of the plan is to establish a food co-op, a community-led grocery store that could purchase fresh produce from the local hubs, he adds.

The co-op would be community-led, Hunyadi says, driven by members who buy in for a nominal annual fee. A board of directors representing stakeholders such as growers, buyers, convenience store owners and other grocers would govern the co-op.

“That way, everyone in the community is involved,” he says. “A major part of food sovereignty is getting community ownership of food access.”

The group has identified an ideal site – the former Red and White market at 823 Elm St., which today stands vacant and is dilapidated.

“It already has a foundation as a grocery store,” he says. The co-op could also facilitate growth of the North Side Farmers market in the neighborhood.

Daniel Bancroft, program manager for the Economic Action Group, said these ideas could translate into plans for improving life and business in the city.

“Each team has developed a pretty amazing solution,” he says. “The city has the opportunity to take these solutions and use them.”

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.