Friday, April 17, 2009

Geography of Cleveburgh: Making the Connections

I'm still angry about Team NEO's ignorance of the economic challenges facing Cleveland and other Rust Belt cities. Team NEO is reinforcing the same dysfunctional geography that birthed the obvious gap between Pittsburgh and Cleveland in President Obama's proposed high speed rail initiative. Framing Pittsburgh as competition ultimately hurts other Northeast Ohio communities, particularly Youngstown.

Surprisingly, at least to me, Pittsburgh leadership seems to appreciate Youngstown's plight better than Cleveland does. The Imagine Greater Pittsburgh campaign defines the region as comprising of 4 states and 30 counties, including Mahoning (Youngstown). How Youngstown in Northeast Ohio ends up as part of Pittsburgh became obvious to me when I considered the Fourth Congressional District of PA, Jason Altmire's territory. This district connects the North Hills of Pittsburgh with Mercer and Lawrence counties (i.e. Greater New Castle).

What does that have to do with Youngstown? Everything. Lawrence and Mercer counties have joined with Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana in Ohio to coordinate workforce development efforts. This collaboration reveals just how shortsighted (and Cleveland-centric) the NEO project is.

That point brings me to The Sprout Fund's Community Connections campaign and a book sent to me for review. I engaged program coordinator Dustin Stiver concerning the regional ambitions of the book, Making the Connections:

Sure, the impetus for this program was the region's 250th anniversary, but by engaging citizens in the idea phase, giving them the power to select which projects should be supported, and enabling project managers to achieve their individuals goals, we built a powerful network of civic leaders from all corners of the region. This network, and the process by which it was created, can be utilized again under any banner and for nearly any purpose.

One of The Sprout Fund's objectives is to encourage regional stakeholders ("the treetops") to adopt these kinds of approaches when engaging citizens ("the grassroots"). By telling this collection of stories, we now have a tangible, proven product that can be grasped when appealing to civic leaders and grassroots advocates alike.

You are likely still wondering what Stiver's comments have to do with Youngstown. Lawrence and Mercer counties are part of this region, part of the book, part of the Community Connections program. From the book about Lawrence:

Despite close social and historic ties to Youngstown in Eastern Ohio, Lawrence County and its principal city of New Castle have managed to carve its own identity while still maintaining links to its neighbors to the West and South in Pittsburgh. Home to the Zambellis, the First Family of Fireworks, Lawrence County has strong community traditions dating back to the immigration of whole European villages in the 19th century. Lawrence County chose to commemorate 2008 by dedicating its Community Connections dollars to serving area children.

Fair to say that Lawrence County is closer, in many aspects, to Youngstown than it is to Pittsburgh. Any regional identity formation would naturally extend to Youngstown and intensify the links between that city and Pittsburgh. The economic reality is that a thriving Pittsburgh boosts Youngstown and therefore the rest of Northeast Ohio. But that wouldn't occur to anyone who wasn't familiar with the world outside of Cleveland. Coming from a purported booster of regional collaboration, such a parochial perspective is shameful. And once again, Cleveland is more than a few steps behind Pittsburgh.

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