Our Towns

Youngstown’s Defender Prepares to Head to Cleveland

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Phil Kidd strolled over Monday for a photo by the Man on the Monument statue in Central Square here.

The site is a familiar setting for downtown motorists and pedestrians of 13 or more years ago, who saw Kidd in the square during his regular weekend vigil when he held a sign with the slogan, “Defend Youngstown. ” In short order, becoming an outspoken evangelist for the city where he had attended college.

That slogan became familiar as well to Mahoning Valley residents. They would soon see it on T-shirts and other merchandise he would sell at the Youngstown Nation store and information center he opened on North Phelps Street, as well as on his Defend Youngstown blog and social media.

His fingerprints can be found on multiple local initiatives, including the Downtown Youngstown Discount Card, the City Club of the Mahoning Valley, cigarette-recycling receptacles placed throughout the central business district and projects at Wick Park. He is frequently seen leading cleanup crews through the downtown, or picking up refuse as he walks around downtown.

Kidd, who was hired by Youngstown CityScape four years ago as its associate director, is leaving the city he has called home since 2004 to become director of special projects for Detroit Shoreway Community Development Organization in Cleveland.

There, his portfolio will include corridor improvement and public infrastructure projects, master planning in several West Side neighborhoods, and management of the special improvement district in the Gordon Square area.

“I have a great passion for this type of work, particularly in older industrial cities,” Kidd says. “Cleveland is just a larger version of Youngstown. In many ways, the neighborhood I’m going to be working on is very representative of neighborhoods I’ve worked on in Youngstown and the special improvement district in Gordon Square is very similar to downtown.”

Kidd was attracted to the position, which he begins April 1, by a mix of professional and personal factors, he says. Many parts of the job description “were in the wheelhouse of my experiences here in Youngstown” and he saw the position as “a great challenge” and as “a next step professionally.”

From a personal perspective, he is familiar with the neighborhood where he will be working. Several friends live there, including his girlfriend.

“When they approached me about the job, I thought it might be a right fit at this time,” he says.

The Pittsburgh native, who earned his bachelor’s degree from Youngstown State University, returned to the city after a stint in the Army, drawn by what he was reading about the Youngstown 2010 plan. He also read “Steeltown USA” by John Russo and Sherry Linkon.

The Youngstown he returned to was years away from the more successful downtown spurred by what became the Covelli Centre and the yet-to-emerge entertainment district, the international acclaim the Youngstown Business Incubator would later earn or the establishment of the national additive manufacturing hub known as America Makes.

“You could see the assets that existed here and the culture of the community,” Kidd recalls. “It seemed like it was a community waiting for something to happen.” He wanted to be “the kind of person who helped change the mindset” of people in the community and get them involved with addressing issues. He crafted the “Defend Youngstown” slogan as something that would “draw a line in the sand” for people and challenge them to “get on board” with addressing the city’s challenges.

“That just goes to the core of Phil – a believer, a defender, so to speak, someone who leads with their heart and is wiling to put in the time to make things happen,” says Sharon Letson, Youngstown CityScape’s executive director.

In the mid-2000s, CityScape, like Kidd, was “beating the drum of believing in the city” and “that we were deserving of raising the standard,” she continues. In 2015, Letson hired Kidd, who previously was a senior organizer with Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative and director of events and special projects for the city.

The founding of the local City Club, a satellite of the City Club of Cleveland, goes to Kidd’s “core value” of looking at “how we could be better, and how we could respectfully have difference of opinion but be around the table and have a conversation about different ideas and all come away with a larger vision,” Letson says.

Among those still proudly wearing his Defend Youngstown shirts – although tattered from a decade-plus of wear and washings – is Jay Williams, president of the Hartford Institute for Public Giving and mayor of Youngstown from 2006 to 2011.

Kidd “single-handedly started a movement,” standing on a street corner holding “a sign with two words that ultimately became a contributing factor to the renaissance of Youngstown and, by extension, of the Mahoning Valley,” Williams says. The slogan was just two simple words that had “so much behind them and could be interpreted in so many ways,” he says.

“The spirit of what we were both doing was about trying to be a part of the renaissance and the battle for the future of a city that had faced unprecedented economic challenges and challenges in terms of population but that clearly had assets.”

Kidd’s advocacy “served as a constant source of inspiration,” as well as an admonishment to longtime residents, challenging them to show the same passion for the community as someone not born and raised here, Williams observes.

There were occasions when Kidd’s passion fueled “animated discussions about approach,” the former mayor acknowledges. “We needed people like Phil who were out in the community challenging us when appropriate and when necessary, but in their next breath saying, ‘What can I do to help.’ ”

Sarra Mohn, president of Jet Creative, Boardman, became acquainted with Kidd when she worked at Home Savings Bank in 2004 and was shocked at the vacancies on Federal Street. Going out for walks at lunch, she encountered Kidd, who was often cleaning up litter, and asked him to accompany her and share his perspective.

“To see the city through Phil’s vision opened my eyes and it became a shared vision,” Mohn says. “It was like that for anyone who spent time discussing the city with him. You left feeling like you could be part of that long-term goal. That type of leadership motivates people to be their personal best and encourages them to bring those talents to the community table.”

Defend Youngstown served as “the conduit between the misconceptions of defeat Youngstown had accepted and the reality of what the city could be reborn to,” Mohn continues. Kidd often wrote about topics that others would be apprehensive about addressing, listing information about issues others wouldn’t approach, and “often times laid out a plan to get the ball rolling in a better direction,” she says.

With Platt Insurance owner Ellie Platt, Mohn and Kidd established the Downtown Youngstown Partnership, an arm of CityScape focusing on the downtown business community.

Reflecting on his efforts here, Kidd says the Defend Youngstown concept was much more successful than he had anticipated, “not knowing what the heck I was doing” standing downtown holding a sign on weekends. He benefited from good timing with the advent of social media and being able to reach out through those platforms and blogging, and eventually expanding to the storefront.

“The proudest work I ever did was when I was a neighborhood organizer here,” he says. It was the hardest job he ever had but also the most rewarding, because he got to interact with people in every neighborhood on every side of town and help residents to address “nitty-gritty issues” such as vacant properties and good government.

While at CityScape, the organization expanded its portfolio beyond downtown beautification. “We started to do different kinds of projects,” he says. The work in Wick Park, for which he helped raise more than $1 million, was “very near and dear” to him.

The Detroit Shoreway job offer wasn’t the first Kidd had received in recent years, Letson notes. Replacing him will be a challenge, she adds.

“I think that the time is right for him personally and professionally for the next step,” although it is with a “heavy heart” that she wished him continued success.

“My guess is he will be around our Youngstown table for things in the future,” Letson adds. “He’s not going far, far away. He will still stay engaged and come in at whatever level he can do.”

“I’m only an hour away. I’ll be back quite often,” Kidd affirms. He will miss Youngstown’s “unique culture” and his relationships here, not to mention drinking a Penguin City beer and eating hot raspberry ribs at the Royal Oaks. He was encouraged at the potential reopening this fall of the Golden Dawn. Other hangouts he will miss patronizing include the Downtown Draught House, Westside Bowl and Cedars, he says.

And he is “remorseful” that he is going to miss the proposed $21 million renovation of the Public Library of Youngstown & Mahoning County’s Main Library, where he spent two hours each night and where he wrote his graduate school thesis this year.

“I’m not going to be here to see that, but I’ll be back and definitely experience those things.”

Pictured: Phil Kidd holds one of his Defend Youngstown T-shirts in Central Square downtown Youngstown, where he used to hold his Defend Youngstown sign.

Copyright 2019 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.