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Ohio Mayors Discuss Community Development at Summit

Jesse Bethea Jesse Bethea Ohio Mayors Discuss Community Development at SummitPhoto by Jesse Bethea.
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Columbus hosted the Greater Ohio Policy Center’s summit at the Westin Hotel this week. The Center’s two-day event focused on the economic revitalization of Ohio cities and neighborhoods with a keynote address by Mayor Michael Coleman on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, the mayors of four Ohio cities met for a lunchtime panel discussion on the successes and challenges each of their communities have experienced during the Great Recession. Karen Kasler of the Statehouse News Bureau moderated the discussion between mayors Nan Whaley of Dayton, John McNally of Youngstown, Paula Hicks-Hudson of Toledo and Randy Riley of Wilmington.

In their opening remarks, the mayors shared with the audience and with each other the work that is currently being done in each of their cities. Whaley mentioned the revitalization of Dayton’s riverfront, with 215 market-rate apartments being constructed on the river. Whaley also celebrated the opening of Dayton’s first bike share program in May.

Hicks-Hudson, who became mayor of Toledo after the tragic death of Mayor Michael Collins earlier this year, noted Toledo’s strengths as a major transportation hub, but acknowledged the city is still trying to find a solution to abandoned and blighted properties. Hicks-Hudson mentioned the upcoming move of ProMedica’s headquarters to downtown Toledo, bringing with it 750 jobs and added, “We have a great entrepreneurial spirit of young people coming to our business and surrounding neighborhoods and bringing back an arts community and revitalizing some of the older, central city types of neighborhoods and I’m very excited about those activities.”

Mayor Riley admitted that, “Wilmington is the little guy up here,” and noted the difficult departure of DHL seven years ago which cost the Wilmington region somewhere between 8,500 and 10,000 jobs.

“Mayors, you don’t want 60 Minutes in your community, doing interviews, twice,” said Riley to his fellow panelists. “That’s what happened to Wilmington, we became sort of the poster child for the recession that started in 2008.”

Riley said in the wake of the Recession, his goal has been to bring jobs back to the community and bringing people together to accomplish more economic development of the area.

Like Hicks-Hudson, Mayor McNally mentioned the problem of urban blight and abandoned properties. He noted that the city has started fixing up two large, vacant buildings in downtown Youngstown and is looking to build an amphitheater and develop more green space. He also said that the arrival of Jim Tressel to Youngstown State University has led to the development of a better relationship between the city and the school.

Kasler’s first question to the mayors was to ask what projects are happening in their cities that would not have happened without collaborations between different public and private entities. McNally answered by saying the development of the buildings in his downtown would not have been possible without private developers and banks that had their own money on the line.

Riley spoke about the constraints he felt as a county commissioner with regard to speaking openly about economic development ideas because of Ohio’s open meeting laws. His solution was to create a 12-person group made up of representatives from the county commissioners, the chamber of commerce, the mayor and other government agencies to discuss ideas for development.

“In no instance is there a ‘Sunshine rule’ violation because we’re all individuals but we can knock down those barriers and we can talk openly and honestly with each other and the newspaper will only be there if we invite them,” said Riley.

Riley said his group has invited the news media to these meetings on occasion and that there’s no mystery to the group’s proceedings, but the ability for these development players to speak candidly without concern over what might appear in the newspaper is helpful.

Mayor Hicks-Hudson spoke of a similar development group in Toledo, where the business community came up with the idea for a “22nd Century Committee,” made up of a cross section of business, industry, labor and cultural arts, creating a plan for what Toledo should look like in the 22nd Century. Hicks-Hudson celebrated the fact that in this program, the public sector plays a smaller part while the effort is driven by the private and non-profit sector.

“Generally we have things where it’s the public sector bringing something forward and if there’s a change in administration, change in funding sources then what might’ve been what I call the flavor of the day gets changed into something else that becomes the flavor of the day,” said Hicks-Hudson.

Mayor Whaley said the business community in Dayton is interested in being a part of the city’s revitalization and investment efforts, but also celebrated the new partnerships between the city of Dayton and the city of Cincinnati.

“I think we’re just scratching the surface of our relationships,” said Whaley.

Kasler asked the panelists two questions on how state policies affect their communities, starting with public transportation policy. Ohio, Kasler noted, sits at 44th in the nation in terms of transportation investment.

Whaley found Ohio’s ranking troublesome, saying that at 44th in the nation, Ohio is on the same level as states “that have no cities.” The lack of state funding means that transportation must be funded locally, said Whaley, which means it stops at the county line. That limit can hurt regional cooperation and employment.

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