Site Map

Economic Action Group Mobilizes Downtown Ideas - The Business Journal

A grassroots initiative launched a year ago is becoming a driving force for downtown revitalization.

The Economic Action Group, which met for the first time last December, will hold its 10th meeting Tuesday afternoon at the Youngstown Business Incubator. During the meeting, downtown property owners will make presentations regarding past projects and future development plans.

“It’s not an organization,” stresses Dominic C. Marchionda, who facilitates the group in his role as a part-time city-university planning coordinator at Youngstown State University’s Center for Urban and Regional Studies. “The only reason this group is maintaining the participants and the monthly meetings, and the effectiveness in mobilizing these ideas into actual accomplishments or actions, is because nobody owns it.”

Marchionda, operations coordinator for NYO Property Group LLC, which is developing several downtown properties, holds advanced degrees in urban planning and redevelopment in post-industrial cities, and launched the Economic Action Group after working as a neighborhood planner for Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp.

“I learned a lot in school but I learned a heck of a lot more in those two years working on the streets of Youngstown and with the community and different leaders,” he remarked. At YNDC, his job was to go into the city’s neighborhoods and figure out how to address blight and increase “curb appeal.”

He came to work for NYO -- a partnership involving his father, Dominic J. Marchionda, and Pan-Bros Association of New York -- after two years with YNDC. Marchionda, now living and working downtown, began noticing the lack of street signs at the intersection of Wick Avenue and Commerce Street, two of the oldest and main thoroughfares in the city; busted curbs, the lack of painted crosswalks and turning lanes, “the goofy stuff that is part of the lack of investment and activity in downtown for 30 or 40 years, or in the city in general,” he reflected.

And so he decided to take the same approach that YNDC took in the neighborhoods and create a “multi-block plan for downtown.” Working with interns and others at YSU, he conducted a parcel-by-parcel current conditions analysis of the downtown area and prepared a report that suggested various recommendations and economic incentives provided by the city and other entities.

He sent the report to about 60 community leaders from the public, private and nonprofit sectors and, at the suggestion of Jim Cossler, CEO of the Youngstown Business Incubator, held the Economic Action Group’s initial meeting 11 months ago at YBI.

Marchionda describes Cossler, who frequently is seen picking up litter throughout the downtown, as “an inspiration.”

During the meeting, attended by about 50 people, he showed what downtown looked like and ‘the standard we’ve accepted” and proceeded to show what other communities and organizations have done in collaboration “to help a city that’s experienced chronic abandonment and disinvestment due to postindustrial collapse. ‘This is how we can come together and do something about it,’ ” he said.

“We already have great organizations like YNDC and CityScape and the like that are doing events on an annual scale or a big planting day,” he related, “but there’s so much activity now. There’s more housing, there’s more residents downtown, there’s students living downtown, there’s restaurants. So it was a good time to see just where we’re at, what we’ve accepted and where we can go.”

Feedback was good, and at a subsequent meeting YSU’s Center for Urban and Regional Studies performed a SWOT -- strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats -- analysis for the downtown. The survey, which sought participants’ impressions of the downtown and their vision for the future, was shared “and we got hundreds of responses,” he said.

From that, three “overarching concepts” were distilled for which “we wanted to break off into teams or focus groups:” place making, economic and community development, and marketing. At the beginning or end of each meeting, updates in each of the three categories are presented.

Each month the group brings in experts to address one of the three categories. For example, officials from Kent discussed the Acorn Alley esplanade project. Another meeting focused on economic development financing and featured professionals in that field.

The Economic Action Group was also responsible for bringing in a speaker to discuss what wayfinding signage is and “why it’s an important first step to revitalization of an urban core,” Marchionda said.

Members also are working with local planning professionals in partnership with YSU, the city’s economic and community development departments and the Eastgate Regional Council of Governments who are preparing a comprehensive downtown plan he expects to be finished next year.

“Everybody’s coming together because they know this is the opportunity,” Marchionda said. “There’s investment here. It’s now or never.”

Goals of the group include possibly establishing a special interest district with funds raised from an assessment set aside for capital improvements.

“Everyone is approaching the table as an equal,” said Paul Hagman of RBF CoLab Architecture and Design, Youngstown. Hagman, who has attended the meetings since December, is impressed with the people who show up for the events. “What’s really refreshing about this group is it’s not afraid to take a slightly more holistic approach,” he said.

Downtown’s appearance is one of the issues Cossler says he hears about from the incubator’s portfolio companies. YBI and its affiliates, including America Makes, bring high-level executives here from around the country and the globe. He is interested in the wayfinding project, which Cossler says would be helpful for people who are coming downtown in many cases for the first time.

Cossler, who noted he has worked downtown his entire professional career and seen “just about every iteration” of downtown interest groups, dating to the Youngstown Board of Trade in the 1980s, said “the jury is still out” on the Economic Action Group and whether it will be the one that “finally puts together an effective downtown program.”

Even so, he praises Marchionda’s energy.

“He’s full of absolutely phenomenal ideas” and is “extremely knowledgeable about urban planning,” Cossler said. “They’ve got the right players at the table, they’ve got engagement, and we’ll see how the execution part of it works.”

To read the full story from The Business Journal, click here.