By Nicole Hennessy
Northeast Ohio is an evolving area of the country that is in many ways rebuilding, having lost its identity as a manufacturing hub followed by a confusing lull in progress, and a housing crash that devastated many of its oldest neighborhoods.
While the Westshore area remains unaffected by many of these issues, the question ‘“How do we grow?”‘ applies, as do issues of transportation, infrastructure, parks, jobs and the often heated topic of regionalization of governments and services. That is the core of Vibrant NEO 2040’s “regional visioning and decision-making framework.”
The Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium (NEOSCC) and its Vibrant NEO initiative operate on a $4.25 million U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) grant as part of the national Partnership for Sustainable Communities Initiative, a collaboration between HUD, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the federal EPA.
At the organization’s first Westshore “vision session” on Oct. 14, Fairview Park community members were given the opportunity to share where they would like to see Northeast Ohio in 2040.
As was revealed by previous community meetings and the “Imagine My NEO” online tool, the “grow differently scenario” in relation to environmental preservation, building and transportation seemed to get the most attention.
“We do better by growing,” said NEOSCC Director Hunter Morrison. “We do much better by growing differently.”
But, he said, “you can’t just grow your way out of the fiscal challenges we have.”
While sessions like the one held in Fairview Park have been well-attended, an online petition posted on petitionbuzz.com argues this initiative is part of “aggressive efforts to implement Regionalism under the guise of ‘sustainability.’”
The petition, which has over 1,200 signatures, says the results of Vibrant NEO 2040 workshops is “an effort to steer the opinions of participants and manipulate them into believing they are actively playing a role in the planning process, when in fact they are being used to establish an appearance of public collaboration to back up their pre-determined recommendations.”
Morrison and former state Rep. Ed Jerse, after an hourlong presentation Monday, addressed issues brought up by the 50 participants seated in the Gemini Center’s Oak Room, Jerse answering just a few questions.
“There’s no recommendations on resources, funding (or) how to achieve it,” one attendee commented regarding Vibrant NEO’s extremely broad vision, worrying too many factors are at play to be truly effective.
“Particularly,” the attendee continued, “I was kind of conflicted by the transportation aspect.”
Similar to the results of previous and online questionnaires, 71 percent of attendees said they travel alone, 40 percent commenting that they feel it’s financially manageable. But 62 percent of participants voted for increasing the region’s public transportation.
Morrison pointed out that more research will be done on these findings, but mentioned the aging population will need alternative and increasingly efficient public transportation options.
“Perhaps the most dynamic segment of the market,” he said, “is the Gen Xers – the children or grandchildren of the baby boomers – who grew up on those cul de sacs and hate them.”
Using the younger demographic as an example to make the case for many of the initiatives that have so far received the most community support, Morrison then went on to address that a lot of what he’s been hearing is a push toward more compact development versus outward growth.
Throughout the evening, comments ranged from worrying this study doesn’t truly represent all of Northeast Ohio and wondering how zoning laws will change or come into play, to pointing out the “grow differently scenario” seems idealistic and too broad in scope.
Since legislators, county commissions and planning bodies, as well as private organizations, will be presented with the initiative’s results, these are valid concerns.
“I would not underestimate, on the policy level, the amount of pushback you will get to this agenda,” Jerse said toward the end of the question and answer portion of the session. “I’m not saying it’s from shortsighted people; it’s from people who have different perspectives and different interests.
“It’s very difficult to impose things on people,” he continued, adding that tax or purchasing incentives will be necessary to get local legislators and leaders on board with any proposed changes.
NEOSCC’s Vibrant NEO vision sessions will continue throughout the month of October in Kent, Ashtabula, Canton, Painesville and Elyria, after which another set of data will be compiled for further analysis and discussion.
“This is a long-term vision,” Morrison reminded attendees, continuing, “The question now is whether the direction we’ve been heading in for the past 20 years is the direction we should continue in.”