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What did I get from the NE Ohio Planning and Zoning Workshop?

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On June 5, I was at the NE Ohio Planning and Zoning Workshop at the Youngstown YWCA in Mahoning County.  Planners, zoning commissioners, elected officials, and even citizens from five counties attended.  The format was similar to other professional organization workshops with the sign in tables, sessions, lunch, and limited breaks. Some of the sessions included topics like Vision of Northeast Ohio, Land Bank Lite, and Conservation Easements. These presentations may not have the ‘wow’ factor for most people but they are relevant to what many agencies have to deal with.

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The Downtown Youngstown YWCA.

Now why, after four years not attending something like this, would I want to go all the way to the edge of the state to sit in a room and listen to a man talk about flood plain administration?  After all, it was nothing I needed to know for my job at work.  The networking possibilities of these workshops are nil, nor do I get any serious job leads, as I discovered years before.  In all respects, these American Planning Association events remind me about all the time and money I wasted at the  Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs getting that Master’s Degree I don’t use.  So, why go?

NEO Planning and Zoning Workshop, June 5, 2015, inside the YWCA

Inside the workshop at the YWCA.

As I wrote in a previous post, I have always been fascinated by how urban planning can help cities and, despite all of the above, like to know when such things are discussed.  For example, I would have loved to attend the Policy Summit on Housing held this week in Pittsburgh by the Cleveland Federal Reserve if I could.  The fact that not just cities like Cleveland and Youngstown but the region as a whole has lost population since 1970 means that new strategies should considered to make this a region that not only creates good paying jobs for people already living here (and fails miserably for the most part) but attracts talent from the rest of the world.  If University Circle is emerging as one of Bruce Katz’s Innovation Districts, like I believe it is, then there is hope. Also, if some of the investment dollars back from the urban fringe (and downtown, let’s face it) can go towards redeveloping such neighborhoods as Slavic Village and Collinwood (or inner-ring suburbs like Fairview Park) we might just have a shot at becoming the next Pittsburgh. There is so much potential in this area and it’s frustrating to see this slow slide continue.

A workshop such as this is a great place to learn from those in the profession on how to better serve, and improve, such communities like Youngstown, and Painesville, and Parkman Township for that matter.   Planning, Economic, and Community Development Departments can have a real impact on the communities they serve; if other players such as that chamber of commerce and elected officials listen to what they have to say.

It also helped that I had much lower expectations than four years ago on what to expect from an event like this.  I was not selling myself this time and was pretty relaxed. What I didn’t count on was the fact that many of the speakers were gentlemen from Cuyahoga County that I didn’t quite want to run into again. Fortunately, it was all balanced out by an old high school friend of mine. Don Romancak, who drove all the way from Lorain County to do a presentation with the ex-husband of a former mayor of Cleveland.  “What are you doing here?” I asked him as he came up to my table. That was a nice surprise, and he later gave a great presentation.

I wound up learning about things that were interesting and met people who I probably would never run into in Cuyahoga County.  For example, it took me half an hour to realize that the woman I casually chatted with near my table was Mahoning County Commissioner Carol Rimedio-Righetti.  She delivered an excellent opening speech before presenting a man I was already acquainted with, former Cuyahoga County Treasurer James Rokakis.  He delivered one is his PowerPoint shows on why County Land Banks are so important in Ohio. As a matter of fact, land banks possess a proven track record in moving foreclosed properties through the process of becoming assets again. One thing that was different from his earlier speeches is his mentioning of a study by Nigel Griswold made of the effects Land Banks had in Michigan. Mr. Griswold discovered that, while the demolition of abandoned and run-down properties in middle to upper income neighborhoods did add to the value of surrounding properties, that didn’t happen in inner city communities.  In other words, while one can assume you’ve heard the whole spiel before, something new usually pops up and you learn something new.

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James Rokakis speaks.

Another moment that sticks in my head about that day was lunch.  There, in the YWCA gym, I sat at a table with two Lake County Planners, one of the speakers who I did an information interview with almost twenty years ago (and suddenly remembered who the heck I was again), and two young guys from Lucas County names Jacob Barnes and Eric Wagner.  As it turned out they were doing a presentation on zoning in that very room on zoning after the plates were cleared. They did an excellent job discussing something I haven’t really paid attention to since 2011. One thing that sticks out in my mind is that they recommended the planners in the room get involved with their local chamber of commerce. There was at least one in that room doing just that since, two seats away from me at my table was the Planning Director for the City of Chardon who, as it turns out, is President of their Chamber of Commerce.   If I actually had a job in a planning department, this and the other workshops would have been quite useful in my work.

NEO Planning and Zoning Workshop, June 5, 2015 one of the sessions.

The Zoning Presentation

One thing about being there as only a citizen is that you can leave early.  I did just that at 2:30 P.M. that day and went off on my little adventure up Fifth Avenue which turned out better than I imagined.  Later that night, back in my humble home, I called up my friend Don and discussed the workshop.  I even admitted that the chip on my shoulder was a lot smaller there than back in Cuyahoga County and he laughed.

It’s tough having a degree in a profession that has no jobs. Yet, when I was in that YWCA, things clicked again in my head like they didn’t at all the other professional organizations, or mixers, I’ve attended in the past few years. As I said in my initial post, it was worth the fifty dollars to drive all the way to Youngstown to there. You can’t say the same thing for many events like that.

Photographs taken by author.

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