Perseverance key in cleanup, development

It’s been more than 25 years since Ohio Leatherworks pulled out of Girard, leaving what has amounted to no less than an environmental nightmare.

The cleanup, ongoing since the city took over the property in 2013, will take millions of dollars in federal or state grants, along with local matching money. And even before the city took over ownership, its first responders had become responsible for safety issues that included battling dangerous fires at the vacant structure still privately owned at the time. It took 20 years of litigation for Girard to acquire ownership — likely prolonged due to the city’s financial woes during that time — and cleanup plans could begin in earnest.

Last week, Girard City Council gave final reading to seek a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency brownfield restoration grant of up to a half-million dollars to clean up contaminants and hazardous substances at the U.S. Route 422 property. The goal is to rid the 27-acre property of environmental dangers in order to convert it ultimately to biking or walking trails. That’s been a goal of city leaders dating back to at least 2000 when a comprehensive plan prepared by the Trumbull County Planning Commission included acquiring more greenspace for recreational areas.

If city leaders are successful in obtaining this latest U.S. EPA grant, with the help of the Trumbull County Planning Commission and the Youngstown Warren Regional Chamber, it would be just the next costly step in cleaning up a mess that was no fault of their own. A previous grant, obtained with help from the Western Reserve Port Authority, according to Mayor James Melfi, had helped fund preliminary debris cleanup from the property. There still is much more work to be done after this next step.

Now the city is embroiled in litigation as it attempts to acquire another 41 acres of rail line adjacent to the Ohio Leatherworks property and near the Mahoning River. They are hoping to utilize it also for bike trails that eventually will connect Girard with the Western Reserve Greenway trail. In the civil case, Girard is suing the Youngstown Belt Railroad Company, Genesee and Wyoming Railroad Inc.

Just like the city’s new canoe launch that was added last year along the Mahoning River after years of planning and development, city officials are hopeful the bike trail would improve quality of life or personal wellness for Girard residents, as well as attract visitors to the area.

If it comes to fruition, additions could include things like stage areas for nature walks or bird watching, along with recreational or play areas along the river.

The potential is enormous.

When I travel to other cities — whether nearby like Columbus, Pittsburgh or Akron, or far away like San Antonio or Tampa — I often marvel at the level of planning and foresight that must have gone into creation of things like the riverwalks, downtown development areas, entertainment districts and such. In all these instances, economic development follows. Still it takes years and years of preparation and planning, not to mention someone with vision.

That’s why I applaud Melfi and Girard city leaders for having the wherewithal to stay the course all these years on their projects. Frustrating at times? No doubt. Costly? Absolutely. But it’s admirable to see their commitment to improving quality of life and the value of their city by continuing to chip away at conversion of what was unsafe contaminated acreage hopefully into something very worthwhile.

I am hopeful this effort will be successful and, in the end, also contribute to improved economic development results as well.