YOUNGSTOWN — The Mahoning County commissioners recently awarded $2 million of the county’s $44 million in American Recovery Plan funds to the Mahoning County Community Improvement Corporation for projects in Campbell, Struthers and elsewhere in the county.
The Western Reserve Port Authority runs the CIC for the commissioners.
Though the commissioners announced the $750,000 for a Campbell project in October, they voted to award the money at a late December meeting, along with $750,000 for a project in Struthers and $500,000 for economic development in other communities.
The Struthers project will focus on improving the Struthers downtown and will be done in conjunction with a comprehensive plan being written with KO Consulting of Struthers, Mayor Catherine Cercone Miller said. The community engagement phase of the plan will begin in a couple of weeks.
“In Struthers, we have a lot of vacant buildings that just sit there, and that’s all they have done for years and years,” she said. In some cases, a business will move in for a while and then leave.
“We want to make the downtown a destination spot,” she said. Right now, people stop at a few restaurants and the aluminum extrusion company AstroShapes, “but we want to make it not just driving through downtown, but get out of your car and see what we have in Struthers.”
The Los Gallos building on South Bridge Street has been “so many things” over the years and did not sell at sheriff’s sale, so the city acquired the building into the city’s land bank. Through the comprehensive plan, the city wants to see what type of business will “fit” there the best, she said
“Right now we have a very big void for a breakfast / coffee shop,” Miller said. “We’re trying to fill these voids to make it a walkable downtown. In addition to Bridge Street, the project and part of the comprehensive plan will focus on State Street and Lowellville Road.”
Another goal will be to establish an outdoor gathering space near the CASTLO industrial park downtown and establish facade grants for existing businesses of about $200,000, the mayor said.
The city would like to foreclose on some abandoned buildings and demolish some. Some of the money will be used to rehabilitate some buildings. “We just want to get some movement because our downtown has been so stagnant for so long,” she said. “We want people to either fix up their buildings or sell them and get someone in there.”
She said city officials would like to create a bike and hike trail in the city to involve the Mahoning River and Yellow Creek, but a specific path has not been determined.
Sarah Lown, public finance manager for the Western Reserve Port Authority, said the Mahoning County CIC is the economic development branch of the commissioners. The port authority manages the CIC.
Campbell and Struthers are eligible for ARP funds from the commissioners because they are “eligible census tracts,” Lown said.
The commissioners awarded an additional $500,000 to the CIC to “give other economic development opportunities to other areas and other businesses that may not fall within the guidance of the ARP funds,” said Audrey Tillis, county administrator. She said the CIC will decide what projects to fund with that money.
The Campbell project is to assist the city with its 12th Street Corridor Project, which will involve reduction of blight. The project also will provide street-scaping and assistance to small businesses, Lown said.
The project also may include improved access to St. John The Baptist Catholic Church, which is the only one of three Campbell Catholic churches that will remain open under a Youngstown Catholic Diocese reorganization plan.
The $500,000 is going to the CIC, but the port authority also will be working with the CIC on these projects, Tillis said.
The Economic Action Group of Youngstown was awarded $60,000 to create a website to help the group carry out goals established through a project called Equitable Entrepreneurial Ecosystems.
E3 focuses business development efforts encouraging “inclusive innovation and economic development,” according to an E3 brochure. “Our ultimate goal is to see each city we work with develop a connected, well resourced (system) to support entrepreneurship for all,” the brochure states.
The website will allow the Economic Action Group “to be more data driven in tracking (projects) than we have been,” said Nick Chretien, executive director of Economic Action Group.
The database will be used by various economic development organizations, county officials said.
The Economic Action Group operates in economically disadvantaged communities in Mahoning and Trumbull counties “with a targeted focus on the center city of Youngstown,” according to the group’s web site.
The commissioners also awarded $250,000 of ARP funds to the Mahoning County Homeless Continuum of Care. Colleen Kosta is coordinator of the organization, which has been in Mahoning County about 20 years.
She said the organization, which receives funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, coordinates homeless services in Mahoning County and provides funding to nonprofits for housing.
“We will try to use it primarily for emergency services — shelter, getting people off of the streets. That’s one of the hardest things to find funding for. There is no federal funding for it. There is very limited state funding for it,” she said.
An example of an organization the Continuum of Care funds is Catholic Charities, which opened a shelter in the past year, she said. Another is Compass Family and Community Services’ Sojourner House, a domestic violence shelter.
“I help evaluate what our community needs for services, and I help secure funding, like our funding through HUD,” she said. She also works with other organizations that come to her with an interest in a project, she said.
Once per year in January, her group carries out a 24-hour census of the homeless in Mahoning County. “That brings awareness to what people are actually experiencing because we do face-to-face interviews,” she said.
“Because of the pandemic (homelessness) is getting worse,” she said. “We’re trying to put services and funding in place to prevent homelessness. We’re trying to keep people in their home. Right now they are projecting that our homeless numbers will increase because of the pandemic. People have lost their jobs, they have medical bills they can’t afford. Across the country we have a housing shortage. Overall, our country has seen a steady increase in homelessness over the past five to six years.”
“It’s going to fill a lot of gaps in some of the services we have identified,” Kosta said of the $250,000.
“The bulk of our funding comes through federal and state grants. There are a lot of stipulations and very specific purposes for it. We hope we won’t have anybody out this winter that doesn’t have a place to go,” Kosta said. “We’re trying to keep people who are with private landlords where they are at.”
Tillis noted: “Our continuum of care does a really good job, really active.”
During the commissioners Dec. 16 meeting, Commissioner David Ditzler noted that he had spoken with Trumbull County Commissioner Frank Fuda and learned Trumbull County is looking to hire an attorney to guide that county’s commissioners on the rules for using ARP funding. That has delayed the use of Trumbull County’s ARP funds.
“I said, ‘Our prosecutor does everything,’” Ditzler said of providing legal advice on ARP funding. Ditzler offered to provide Fuda with a list of the projects Mahoning County has authorized so far to give Trumbull County some ideas.
“Mahoning County has to be proud of that,” Commissioner Carol Rimedio Righetti said.
“It’s a philosophy of the top,” said Gina DeGenova Zawrotuk, chief assistant Mahoning County prosecutor, who attended the meeting. “Paul Gains has always been very adamant about creating a full service law firm for this county, and he has done that.”
Ditzer said the Mahoning County commissioners established three focus areas for using Mahoning County’s ARP funds: helping the less fortunate through agencies such as Catholic Charities; helping small businesses; and “opportunities to create economic development,” including projects through the county engineer’s office and county sanitary engineer’s office.
The commissioners recently moved $4.5 million of its ARP funds to the county general fund, which was allowable under the ARP rules. It allows the commissioners to award money to “projects like helping the townships, villages and cities in Mahoning County,” Ditzler said.