For the past two years I have been undertaking an effort to redevelop a small city in the midwest, Salem, Ohio. The effort was driven by the decline of the city both fiscally and the loss of significant architecture and business, particularly retail, in the downtown district.
Salem is a small city of twelve thousand residents. The city is located about midway between Cleveland and Pittsburgh. It has significant architectural value with 1900 era buildings and has a rich history which includes the Underground Railroad and Women’s suffrage movements. John F. Kennedy spoke in Salem during his campaign in 1960. In 1850 the second Womens rights convention was held in Salem. Many of the structures are directly associated with these historical events. I like to call Salem the “Forest Gump” of cities, because of its inadvertent touches with history.
The negative issues that this city faces:
With the loss of the industrial base of the Industrial Revolution, there was a significant decline in employment and quality of employment during the period of 1950 to the present. The city declined from financial prominence to a polarity of wealth with a small percentage of the populous controlling a large segment of wealth. Employment within the immediate area of the city offered only $ 44,000 income per annum per family. Exacerbating this polarity was the declining industrial base rewarding those who refused active investment and chose passive investment.
The result of the aforementioned issues is a community of wealth and poverty. Because of the need for the good people of this area to show compassion, there have been many non-profits and well-meaning organizations and individuals who have offered assistance in the form of food, clothing, money, and shelter. The result has been to create a haven for the needy. Reviewing newspaper articles shows the city soliciting low-income housing as early as the 1960’s. The result is, of course, an imbalance of those taking services and those participating in the support of those services.
These mis-actions by the local government have created the current issues that the community must overcome. These issues are the inequity of income, the general low income of the middle class, and the imbalance of the distribution of wealth in the population. Results of this are an increase of drug use and an increase in crime.
Reality of fiscal local politics are that the current income, resulting from a 1% income tax has declined from a gross income of 1.3 million per annum to a a current level of three hundred fifty thousand per annum in the past couple of decades. The response to this spiral of failure has been to curtail spending and the offering of services. This has, of course, created a lessening of the income driving the services, etc.
Further amplifying the negative aspects of this failure, like parasites on a sickened animal, are the corrupt, who flock to any significant source of income. In a challenged environment, such as this, their interference is significant in the evolution of the declining fiscal environment.
Positive attributes of Salem, Ohio:
The people of this area are unique. They are strong, hard-working, good people with a strong work ethic. They are loyal and reliable. They are very special as a people and as a workforce. Many middle-class families enjoy one of both parents employed in two or three jobs to offset the meager incomes provided by the current environment.
The aforementioned issues have resulted in a deficit of opportunities for the people of this city and surrounding areas. Also, it has created a magnificent opportunity for the correct employer. Salem and surrounding areas have a strong, willing, and hard-working workforce. Unemployment and underemployment have produced a dormant workforce that is immediately available. Midwestern values, patriotism, honor, dedication, and loyalty are the hallmark of the people of this area.
The cost of living is necessarily low. A fine home can be purchased for under one hundred thousand dollars. A magnificent home can be purchased for two hundred fifty thousand. DInner costs from seven to twenty dollars in a medium grade restaurant. An executive making one hundred thousand dollars per annum can live like a king in this area.
The city of Salem is architecturally and societally beautiful. Tree-lined streets connect this completely walkable city. The image is accurately that of a Norman Rockwell painting. The beauty of the area, the vegetation, the finely groomed lawns and plantings, and the finish of the city itself is magnificent. The community is one of welcoming openness and accepting.
Personal safety is great and crime is not significant. There are drug issues, but they are small and are being immediately addressed and overcome.
The work required to make the needed repairs:
A Technical Advisory Committee was formed and one hundred forty participants addressed the downtown, (the most significant issue from an income perspective). They made recommendations in a seventy page report, which I authored, suggesting the needed ratios of occupancies, green space, and parking. They suggested altered traffic patterns to increase flow of traffic through the city. They addressed the maintenance of the building inventory and supplied the existing methodologies, through the law to address these issues. Repairs of the issues of the downtown will eventually result in an increase of the downtown tax base of 500%
Salem needs to address the insufficient income of the middle class. This will be accomplished by drawing sophisticated industries to this beautiful city and to employ the capable workforce to its potential. The redevelopment of the downtown is a necessary predecessor of the industrial development effort.
Finally, the issue of corruption must be addressed. I have addressed this by regulatory effort. New procurement regulations are being considered and changes to ordinances are being made to assure open honest procurement. Other efforts are underway to stop unfair practices. This is not a punitive effort, it is one of recognition and repair of the things that have been allowed to exist which are detrimental to the city as a whole.
It has now been almost two years since the results of the TAC have been made public. We have enjoyed significant success and, of course, we have suffered substantial resistance to the recommended change. Statistics prove success of the evolution to date, but we are not beyond the tipping point that we once faced as a city. I believe that over the coming three years we will have positive results with the lagging indicators of family income and individual income. Currently commercial and residential real estate have turned a corner and are appreciating significantly. It is now dependent on efforts of revitalization and industrial development to cement the improvements achieved.