Leaders Celebrate Progress Revitalizing the Mahoning River

STRUTHERS, Ohio — Kayaks and canoes voyaged from Struthers to Lowellville on the Mahoning River — a seemingly small feat that would have been impossible 40 years ago, according to Youngstown Mayor Jamael Tito Brown.

“Growing up in the city, everyone told you to stay away from the river,” he recalled during the Mahoning River Revitalization celebration Tuesday afternoon. “But now, as these mayors are getting together and working on this, we’ve all collectively looked at it as an opportunity for us to really affect generations to come as we clean the river.”

Local and state officials gathered for the day-long celebration that kicked off at Struthers’ new Community River Launch site. The Eastgate Regional Council of Governments organized the event to recognize the clean-up and revitalization efforts already made, but also to look toward the future of the river corridor. The event included a nearly 3-hour kayak and canoe ride launched from the Struthers site that ended in Lowellville.

State Sen. Michael Rulli, R-Salem, said he was surprised by how important the river was to the area when he was first elected, but has quickly come to understand that it’s the “artery of the area.” He recognizes its turbulent past and the uphill battle local municipalities have faced restoring the river to where it is today.

Rulli said that the steel mills were “poisoning the river. By the 1970s, the river was so poisoned, you couldn’t even go in the water.”

In 1977, the Environmental Protection Agency released a list of the toxins being poured into the Mahoning River when the nine major steel mills were running. They included thousands of pounds of oil and grease, ammonia-nitrogen, zinc, cyanide and other pollutants and carcinogens. Low-head dams were built along river to increase the availability of water for cooling the hot steel and machinery, ultimately causing toxic sediments to settle on the bottom of the river and behind the dams. Today, the river is making a comeback both in water quality and fish diversity, according to the Ohio EPA’s 2013 biological and chemical survey.

Eastgate Regional Council of Governments and the Mahoning River Mayors Association spearheaded the initiative to revitalize the river corridor. The plan was rolled out last year and the first phase of removing the nine dams along the river began. The dams in Lowellville and Struthers have already been removed, at a cost of $5.5 million.

Jim Kinnick, executive director of Eastgate, said funding has been secured to remove the three dams in Youngstown and one in downtown Warren; they will be taken out next year. He said Eastgate is working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on securing funding for the Leavittsburg, Girard and Warren Township dams. He expects all nine to be removed by 2025 at an estimated cost of $20 million.

“What’s important to recognize is that we’re reclaiming the river and returning it to its free-flowing state, and then taking advantage of the river for economic development. And we all know economic development starts with quality of life,” Kinnick said. “Having a place for our young people, or people that left here and come back here, to enjoy and embrace the river with our downtown areas is certainly our focus.”

Members of the Ohio EPA help canoes and kayaks into the Mahoning River.

Kinnick said that Gov. Mike DeWine’s $500-million Appalachian initiative will hopefully be a source of some funding for the plan. The initiative includes a $50 million planning phase to allow Appalachian communities and regional partnerships to develop plans that incorporate each of the three funding priorities.

Following the planning, $450 million in implementation grants would be invested to help communities and regional groups carry out qualifying projects to rejuvenate the region and stimulate economic growth. DeWine and Lt. Gov. Jon Husted drafted a proclamation for the event as DeWine could not attend. Austin Ward, an administrator for the Appalachia program, read the proclamation that commended Eastgate and the Mahoning River Mayors Association for their efforts.

Kinnick said that the Appalachian funding application is still in “draft form” but there are multiple opportunities for communities to come together — another phase of the corridor revitalization project. Phase II and III of the plan involve restoring connections between the river and its bordering communities, as well as between the cities and villages along its course.

Struthers Mayor Catherine Cercone Miller said her city is in the best place it’s ever been, and she hopes the river keeps it going in the right direction.

Struthers Mayor Catherine Cercone Miller, left, and Lowellville Police Captain Stacy Karis, right, enjoy an afternoon on the Mahoning River.

“We really want to uncover the Mahoning River that runs right through our downtown and highlight all that our city has to offer. We have a team in place right now that will make sure that happens,” she said. “We are right where we need to be in terms of leadership and combining our efforts to get the best possible outcomes for our region.”

Lowellville Mayor Jim Iudiciani said that the revitalization of the corridor has been a priority for the village since 2011. The village was the catalyst for the program after it applied for the Water Restoration Resources Sponsorship Program, an initiative established by the Ohio EPA in 2000 to address the loss of ecological function and biological diversity threatening water quality. The city of Canton sponsored the village and other municipalities, which turned into a “revolving loan deal,” according to Iudiciani.

Iudiciani recognized that the revitalization is a long-time effort started by previous leaders such as former Struthers mayor Terry Stocker and former Campbell mayor William VanSuch, who died in 2017.

“Here we are 11 years later. I have less hair and it’s a little more gray, but it’s finally come to fruition. We had a good group of mayors,” he said. “Eastgate’s done a phenomenal job, our mayor’s association, it’s really been a boost in our economy in little Lowellville.”

From left: Lowellville Mayor Jim Iudiciani, Mahoning Counry engineer Patrick Ginnetti, Struthers Mayor Catherine Cercone Miller, State Sen. Michael Rulli, Campbell Mayor Bryan Tedesco, Girard Mayor Jim Melfi, former Campbell mayor Jack Dill, former Struthers mayor Dan Mamula and State Rep. Michele Lepore-Hagan.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.