Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Mayor Jay Williams: Looking Backward, Looking Forward

Lincoln Avenue is back, starting the new year with a conversation with Youngstown Mayor Jay Williams as he begins his second term.  Along with identifying some important accomplishments, like helping to improve the city's image and solid efforts on economic development, Williams acknowledges the city's continuing struggles. 

The economy, both the challenges of the current recession and our long-term struggles to create more jobs, remains an important problem.  And that issue intertwines with two other challenges: education and crime.  Tight city budgets and increased economic need in the community make fighting crime harder than ever.  So far, the city hasn't had to lay anyone off, though several officers have accepted early retirement buyouts.  And crime rates are improving in some areas, such as murder.  On the other hand, crimes that might be influenced by the bad economy, such and robbery and burglary, have increased.  And the city's reputation as a high-crime area creates continuing challenges for economic development.  Figuring out how to keep enough officers on the streets will be difficult as tax revenues continue to decline, and while the growth of local block watches may help fill the gap, alert neighbors can't do as much as an effective police force.

Mayor Williams also notes that education is a major challenge for the city.  Better education would help us attract more businesses, but it's also true that a better economy and the promise of decent jobs would provide incentives for students to succeed in school, so economics and education reinforce each other.  Of course, the mayor doesn't control the local schools, but Williams says he hopes to get more involved in addressing the issues facing the city school district. 

Of course, I couldn't talk with Jay Williams at the start of 2010 without talking about 2010 -- the plan.  As he acknowledges, the plan has succeeded in several unexpected ways, by bringing positive media attention to the city and by inspiring organizing efforts by non-governmental groups like the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative.  Indeed, the greatest measure of the success of 2010 might be the grants and significant donations that are helping to fund the new Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation -- a new non-profit that promotes local development and citizen engagement, reflecting the neighborhood-centered community organizing approach that started here with 2010.  On the other hand, as Williams notes, some of the original plan's strategies have proven difficult.  The idea that the city could move residents out of struggling blocks and stop providing services there has proven untenable.  After all, a block that looks "not viable" to an urban planner because it only has 2 occupied structures looks like home to the people who own those houses and have lived there for 30 years or more.  On the other hand, organizations like the MVOC, Grow Youngstown, and Lien Forward are working on strategies to turn vacant properties into productive land, so the green we see in the vacant properties survey map might not be quite as bad as it looks on first glance.

Talking with Williams reminded me of the first interview I did for Lincoln Avenue, with John Slanina, who commented that for people of his generation, Youngstown now is the best it's ever been.  We're far from trouble-free, and Williams is right that education, crime, and economic development are not just continuing challenges but the problems for which we must, in the long run, find solutions.  Still, my experience is much like John's: after 20 years here, and despite a lot of time studying and talking about the problems, I feel more optimistic about Youngstown that ever before. 

1 comment:

vern said...

I think the Mayor is doing a fantastic job In conducting plans for the city. MVOC may just turn out to be the best thing that has happened to Youngstown. But we need more people to get involved in this run.I for one would love to learn how to get involved.In doing something to help the city, I'm going to run for city council. I hope to see you all in city hall.
Vern M Wilson