The forum, held at the Chester Zablocki Senior Center, took aim at anyone in local government—including Toledo Mayor D. Michael Collins, members of city council, state representatives, the county treasurer and Lucas County Commissioners. The meeting was organized by One Village Council (OVC), a group of residents affiliated with the United North community development corporation.
“I’m really committed to getting this blight under control in our neighborhood,” said Gary Rogolsky before the forum. “It’s not something that just happened yesterday, but by the same token it’s gotten to the point that it’s really gotten out of hand.”
Rogolsky is motivated by two burned-up houses that have been sitting like that, he stated, since July 2012. The city has since boarded up the homes.
“That seems to be where it ends. I’d like to see those houses just disappear,” he said. “Not only is it an eyesore, but it lowers the property values of the houses around it.”
Rogolsky couldn’t say whether he was hopeful or a healthy skeptic over whether the forum would result in a lot of talk or whether there would be quick action.
“I’m hopeful that all the elected officials are here, but it’s too soon to make a judgment for hope or despair at this point,” he said.
Missie Keeling sat next to Rogolsky and agreed she also needed to see action, not just lip service from the mayor, city council, and county commissioners in attendance.
“They have a short-term vision, but we want long-term solutions,” she said. “We want them to let us know how soon things are going to be done, how fast. Our children are around tire dumps, burned-out buildings—so we need to stand up.”
Residents staged a march the previous Saturday to call public attention to the blight in their neighborhoods and recommend the need for a comprehensive plan that better allocates neighborhood development resources and funds.
OVC officials contend that North Toledo has seen a reduction in services and funding over the past several years to combat nuisance properties and the problems that go with it.
While the group agrees with many of the ideas public officials are touting to combat blight citywide, forum organizers called them at best short-term solutions for neighborhoods identified as significantly distressed.
One Village Council would rather see prevention measures put in place. Toledo City Councilman Jack Ford, a former mayor, has proposed the formation of a Blight Authority to tie together several efforts to remediate graffiti, tear down abandoned homes and buildings, and repurpose vacant properties to a more productive use.
There were moments of visible frustration among residents who spoke. Perhaps the most poignant moment came when one resident asked who had heard gunshots outside their home in the past month—and most of the people in the room raised their hands.
“I’m afraid somebody’s going to get killed,” said another resident.
City administrators sat in the back of the room and took copious notes on problems related at the meeting, especially those with specific addresses or streets involved.
One Village Council introduced a four-part plan, then asked individual elected officials to endorse each point:
Once a city-wide Blight Authority is established, commit to targeting North Toledo and a second neighborhood in East Toledo for the next two or three years to provide comprehensive revitalization resources as pilot projects;
Support an amendment to the proposed blight authority to include a category for active neighborhood groups, such as One Village Council to give residents a voice;
Hold a city council committee hearing on a “non-owner occupied point of sale ordinance” in order to ensure investors have adequate financial resources to maintain said property before it is sold; and
Hold a city council committee hearing on a “foreclosure bond” ordinance in order to hold predatory lenders accountable to their properties, which are often not maintained and allowed to become blighted.
Lucas County Treasurer Wade Kapsukiewicz told the crowd that a partnership between the county land bank and city’s dept. of neighborhoods had demolished 143 structures in the United North service territory in recent months and had plans to tear down 123 more unsafe homes and buildings in that same area over the next two years. He stated the land bank’s mission is to “try to turn blighted properties back into productive use.”
Councilwoman Lindsay Webb, whose district covers much of the United North service territory, touted a plan underway in Youngstown that requires the filing of foreclosure bonds when buying a home or building. That fund currently has $1.6 million in escrow. The money can be used for home demolitions or even cutting high grass at an abandoned lot or property.
“I would like to see us be able to use that money to employ people through the land bank,” said Ms. Webb, while acknowledging it likely would take a change in state law to accomplish. “If that could be run through the land bank and employ people that would accomplish a lot dealing with blight. I want to put that money to work in our community and figure out a way to do that.”
While most of the elected officials present endorsed the One Village Council plan in whole or in part, some did caution the gathering, tempering their enthusiasm to act with some reality, such as limited tax dollars or grant funding.
“I would love to have two to three years of concentrated effort in District 3 (which he represents), but that’s not fair,” said Councilman Mike Craig. “Resources have to be shared.”
Councilman Tyrone Riley called the proposed blight authority “a first step in the right direction.”
Mayor D. Michael Collins used the forum as an opportunity to announce city leaders would focus a T-Town cleanup in a North Toledo neighborhood on Thursday, Sept. 4.
“The cold, hard truth is a group of people meeting in a room gets nothing done,” said the mayor.
Mayor Collins pledged to sign any legislation proposed by Toledo City Council that would make a dent in the city’s blight problem, which one resident at the meeting described as getting a lot like Chicago.
Lucas County Commissioner Pete Gerken warned the gathering that some of its proposals would be hard to implement, especially those requiring banks or investors to post bonds. He related an anecdote of a past political battle when he served on Toledo City Council, which investors fought all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court and won a repeal of new regulations.
“You’re going to have to fight to get this done,” said Gerken. “Outside influencers will come to fight this. But you are fighters.”
Despite the pledges to do more about blight, Ramón Pérez, community organizer for One Village Council, maintained a healthy skepticism on the meeting’s results.
“I still don’t think they understand the comprehensive plan we’re trying to put in place,” he said. “I think they’re still looking at it in terms of how they’ve always done business—just scattered improvements. Clean up one block, one neighborhood, just cleaning up tall grass, those kinds of things. It has to be a comprehensive approach—reviewing our city codes, policies that address blight in the neighborhood, how do we get the schools and businesses involved. I think people are just used to doing the same things they’ve done the past four or five decades.”