Downtown Business Owners to Mayor, Police Chief: Take Back Control
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Increased police presence, more lighting and installation of more security cameras were among the solutions presented at a meeting Sunday afternoon about downtown safety.
More than 30 downtown business owners, landlords and other interested parties joined city officials, including Mayor Jamael Tito Brown and members of his administration, for the discussion, which was held at the Oh Wow! The Roger & Gloria Children’s Center for Science & Technology.
The meeting was initiated by Anne Sabella, co-owner of the Avalon Downtown restaurant, 17 W. Federal St., following last month’s shooting outside The Social, a nightclub in the Erie Terminal Building on West Commerce Street.
The incident, which led to the recent shuttering of the nightclub, “was a real eye-opening experience, at least for me,” Sabella said. She acknowledged that customers have expressed concerns about coming downtown because of what they have been told, have heard and seen.
“It’s definitely had an adverse effect on my business,” she said. She was unable to quantify that loss because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the effect it has had on business, but said she did not open the restaurant’s summer walk-up window “because of what’s going on down here.”
Brown said he wanted to talk specifically to downtown property owners because they are the “ultimate person responsible” for what happens in their buildings. He also called on businesses and landlords to have security cameras in place to record activity.
“I want to make sure the landlord understands we can’t let outside influencers come in and ruin what we have,” he said. “We’ve put too much of an investment downtown. You’ve put too much of an investment in downtown. We’re not going to let that happen.”
Attorney Gregg Rossi pushed back on the issue of putting the ultimate responsibility on landlords. He represents Dominic Marchionda, owner of the Erie Terminal Building, who also attended Sunday’s meeting.
“We were on the tenant at The Social for months,” Rossi said. The owner basically “thumbed [his] nose and the situation escalated.”
Marchionda said in his 11 years as a downtown property owner, he has never seen “such craziness on the street” with people coming down and “completely out of control.”
Eviction was threatened but that process takes time, Rossi said.
The bigger problem, he continued, was the lack of police presence downtown.
Rossi, whose practice is based downtown, also lives downtown with his wife, Denna, an investment adviser representative at TransAmerica’s downtown office.
Last year, the couple opened the Prima Cucina Italiana restaurant, 103 W. Federal St.
When the restaurant was first opened, they would see beat cops, but eventually the police presence diminished, Rossi said. That lack of downtown law enforcement presence led to a tolerance and escalation of events leading to the incident at The Social, he said.
Prima closes before 1:30 and 2 a.m., when incidents at The Social typically took place. Rossi said he has heard from customers dining on the restaurant’s patio who were approached by people asking for money or otherwise making then uncomfortable.
“The safety has been good. But we don’t want to see it tipped in the other direction,” Deanna Rossi said.
Earlier this year, Police Chief Carl Davis said he learned about activities at The Social such as underage drinking, drug use and littering. In an attempt to get the club’s liquor license suspended, Davis went to City Council with videos of fights that had taken place outside of The Social.
One official he would not identify said they “were not in the business of closing down Black and Brown establishments,” Davis said.
Following the shooting, the same official expressed full support for whatever Davis decided to do. The police chief said he then worked with Law Director Jeff Limbian to secure a nuisance abatement.
The city secured a temporary restraining order Aug. 27 and shut the bar down. In the weeks since, various downtown merchants have told him that “everything is now quiet down there,” and there have been no further incidents, he reported.
The concern goes beyond downtown, the police chief pointed out. “When we focus on that part of the city, other parts of the city are not being covered,” he said.
The strain on the city’s police officers was illustrated particularly when three people were killed in late May near the Torch Club Bar and Grill on Salt Springs Road and “all hell breaks loose” at The Social the same night, Limbian said.
“Now where do we go from here?” Davis asked. “That’s what we’re here for today, to discuss how do we move forward from here.”
Youngstown officials realize that the city is at a tipping point, Limbian said. They recognize that business owners can’t sustain their operations and the city can’t maintain a successful central business district if people from the outlying areas decide they can go to venues outside downtown for dining and entertainment “without the hassle.”
One step the city has taken is to bring former Mahoning County Municipal Court Judge Lou D’Apolito into the city law department, Limbian said. D’Apolito served on the municipal court for several years, has been a downtown property owner and operated as a lawyer.
“He knows the criminal component inside and out and he’s already making suggestions. He is going to be our liaison with me and the law department to make sure that any problems that you have will be addressed,” he said.
“But here’s the problem. We need evidence of things in order to prosecute people,” he continued. “The only way we can prosecute people who do bad things and send the message we’re not going to tolerate that is if we have evidence to take people to court.”
City officials are willing to do “whatever it takes to make this succeed,” especially in the downtown area, D’Apolito affirmed. He reiterated the need for downtown stakeholders to have security cameras, as well as to have security in place at their establishments.
Gregg Strollo, principal architect of Strollo Architects, which redeveloped and occupies the first floor of West Federal’s Wells Building, would like to see new security cameras coordinated with the city.
“The business owners and responsible people are happy to be on cameras,” he said. “If it’s known that you’re going to be on footage, anything you do in the central business district is going to be recorded by somebody somewhere, that’s going to change behavior.”
One of the issues with cameras is storage of the collected data, which is expensive. Brown said there are discussions with the Ohio governor’s office regarding a possible clearing house for storage.
During the open dialogue portion of the forum, Charlie Staples, owner of Charlie Staples Bar-B-Que on West Rayen Avenue, called for increased illumination in the area where The Social operated, “to make that baby really, really bright.”
Brown responded that that additional lighting was an issue for the city in coordination with Ohio Edison.
Avalon Downtown’s Sabella raised the issue of vehicles driving down Federal Street blaring music, an issue at night particularly when people are dining on the patios of downtown restaurants.
In addition, she said there are downtown venues that rent their establishments for one-day events that seem to cause disturbances.
The noises also are a concern for the people living in downtown Youngstown apartments, affirmed Rev. Lewis Mackin, who moderated the discussion.
Rossi raised the issue of motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles “causing terror” on downtown streets.
Howard Howell, owner of Frieda’s, a jazz club on West Rayen Avenue, said problems haven’t spilled over to his venue, but wanted to know if there was a way to enhance the police presence in the entertainment district.
“We can’t arrest our way out of this,” Macklin asserted. “We need to find ways to encourage people to be responsible for their behaviors.”
“One of the things I’m hearing is we need to set the expectation. This is why we’re here because we’re asking to set the expectation and ask us for help,” said Nikki Posterli, Brown’s chief of staff.
Posterli also agreed with Macklin that the city can’t arrest its way out of the problem.
“We have to have open communication with our landlords with our businesses and the people who patronize our establishments,” she said.
She pointed to another one-time downtown hot spot, the Hookah Bar, that addressed its concerns by ceasing alcohol sales at midnight, changing its music and turned on lights. “So we have to start working together to set the expectations for what you will allow in your establishment,” she said.
Downtown stakeholders largely saw the meeting as a productive first step toward addressing security issues, including the one who initiated it.
“It was productive. It was starting in the right direction,” Sabella said. “Situations, unpleasant as they are, need to be brought forward so people are forced to address them and deal with them.”
Sabella said her family has been downtown for 70 years and has always owned real estate here. Despite her personal affection for downtown, she agreed with her husband that they can’t stay in an unsafe environment but wanted to at least try to work toward a solution.
“If it doesn’t work, I at least have lost nothing and I know I’ve at least given it my best,” she said.
Among the solutions she supports are increased police presence downtown and making sure those officers are paid a fair wage.
“You saw from the videos what they’re faced with. We need to respect the job that they do for us,” she said.
Frieda’s hasn’t had any problems and Howell said he wants to keep it that way. The only way that will happen is with the assistance of the city police department.
“Just seeing the people get together and show their concerns was very motivating for me,” he remarked.
“I was encouraged,” Rossi said. While he said city officials’ “hearts were in it,” they did not present specifics about plans to address the stakeholders’ concerns, he said.
Deanna Rossi was concerned that people might be discouraged from coming downtown because they fear their safety. “This is about addressing it before it gets to that,” she said.
They both also disputed Mackin’s and Posterli’s position.
The situation at the Social “didn’t happen overnight,” Gregg Rossi said. It escalated over weeks because there wasn’t early intervention by law enforcement.
“You have to arrest early and send a message we’re not going to put up with this crap,” he said.
“You can arrest yourself out of this and have a zero tolerance policy in downtown because I want to surround myself with other law-abiding people. I want to go downtown and I want to feel safe,” Deanna Rossi added.
“Everybody wants to row in the same direction,” Strollo said. “Everybody’s got a common goal. Business owners are prepared to help to the degree that we can.”
Pictured at top: Anne Sabella, co-owner of the Avalon Downtown, leads Sunday’s meeting to discuss concerns over the recent surge in violence in Youngstown.
Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.