Downtown Stakeholders Lament, Attempt to Combat Litter

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio -- Jim Cossler was headed to lunch with someone he described as a “very, very high-profile guest” -- in town to attend an America Makes management review meeting last fall – as they passed a downtown planter filled with cigarette butts.

The visitor, Cossler recalls, remarked that it was “the largest ashtray” he had seen in his life.

“I know he said it as a joke,” the Youngstown Business Incubator CEO and “chief evangelist” says. Even so, “I don’t think he’s ever going to forget the largest ashtray he’s ever seen in his life was in downtown Youngstown and it was meant to be a flower planter.”

Every week, “extremely high-profile visitors” from across the country and around the globe come to the YBI campus to visit America Makes or a YBI portfolio company, Cossler say.

“If they would stay on our campus and leave our campus, never going anywhere else downtown, they’ll leave with an overwhelmingly positive first impression of Youngstown,” he remarks. “But if they walk through downtown, they get a decidedly different first impression.”

All manner of refuse is easily seen downtown, from the dozens of cigarette butts scattered in front of the bars and restaurants to discarded food containers, bottles and cans, paper and other waste. “It’s the whole gamut,” Cossler says.

The litter issue is a byproduct of the growth downtown Youngstown is experiencing, says Phil Kidd, owner of the Youngstown Nation store on North Phelps Street and who lives downtown. “As we have more people living here, we’re seeing more trash, and one of the problems is that we haven’t accommodated that growth,” he observes.

“Yeah, it’s a concern,” admits Katie Seminara, assistant manager of Oh Wow! The Roger & Gloria Jones Children’s Center for Science & Technology. During the summer, when the downtown is host to festivals, “things [meaning litter] get a little crazy.”

With more than 110,000 visitors to date, Oh Wow! brings “a diverse set of people” downtown, she reports. Those visitors come not just from the five-county region but from Ashtabula, the Akron-Canton area and, “just because it’s a different option for families,” Pittsburgh and Cleveland, she says. In some cases, their visit to Oh Wow! is their first impression of downtown Youngstown.

The city is drafting a memorandum of understanding that will be sent to downtown business and property owners, says Youngstown Law Director Martin Hume, who is working with Sean McKinney, city building and grounds director, to write the document modeled on similar initiatives in other cities.

“It’s designed to set out what the city is doing for the businesses and what businesses are expected to do in terms of their corporate responsibility,” Hume says.

“The city does put quite a bit of resources into trying to keep the downtown clean,” he elaborates. “We’re going to ask the businesses to put forth the same effort.”

Among the specifics are cleaning up cigarette butts, emptying trash receptacles and sweeping sidewalks, removing snow in winter – “basically trying to put our best foot forward for all of downtown,” the law director says.

Youngstown is responsible for property it owns downtown and the common areas there and is responsible for trash pickup in public spaces, McKinney says. Every day, city departments including street, park, and building and grounds, along with clients of the Community Corrections Association, are responsible for downtown cleanup – each is assigned a day of the week – and the city routinely sweeps downtown streets, he reports

One item the city will request in the upcoming memo is for business owners to ensure their garbage dumpsters are secured and that they have contracted for trash pickup, McKinney says. Additionally, businesses and organizations that sponsor events downtown will be held responsible for cleanup each day the event runs and at its conclusion. 

Each day, Cossler and YBI staff pick up litter around the YBI campus and beyond. He is adamant that given the other demands on city resources, addressing the problem is primarily the responsibility of downtown business and property owners.

“How long would it take you, one time first thing in the morning, maybe around noon before lunch and one time again just before or as you’re closing, to sweep up?” he asks. “It’s what? A 20-minute investment to make your property much more pleasant for your customers? I just don’t understand why they don’t do that.”

Downtown litter is also something Kidd personally addresses every day as he goes up and down Federal Street and its side streets to pick up as much trash as he can. “I can fill up a whole garbage bag just on Federal Street alone at the end of the day,” he says. On Sunday mornings he and other members of a recently organized council of downtown residents meet at his store to pick up trash “so when people come back here Monday, to work or whatever, it’s a little cleaner,” he says.

“I do think it’s the business owners’ individual responsibility,” Seminara agrees. “We all should be aiming toward the same goal of creating a different perception of our downtown and that should be something that we all strive for, not just Oh Wow! because we’re bringing families down here.”

Cossler points to who he sees as the primary culprits. “Absolutely restaurants and bars are the worst,” he says. The problem is more pronounced from late spring through early fall because many of the venues have café seating to capitalize on the better weather and to accommodate smokers.

“In nice weather, a lot of the clients go outside to have a drink, and because there isn’t a trash receptacle within two feet of where the person is, they just put the bottle on the ground or throw the can in the street,” he says. 

Saturday and Sunday mornings “are the worst because people have been out late down here at the bars and you see a higher volume of trash the next morning,” Kidd says. Around 11 a.m. Sunday, the downtown residents council gathers at Youngstown Nation to gather trash, he says.

Downtown litter is “a big problem,” acknowledges Roxane Zoccoli, manager of the Downtown Draught House on West Federal Street. Cigarette butts are often scattered on the sidewalk in front of the establishment – not far from the receptacle for the butts – and liquor bottles and 40-ounce cans purchased at convenience stores are left outside, including in flowerbeds. Refuse also is tossed in the back parking lot, she says.

“We try to do what we can. It’s hard,” Zoccoli says. She usually has someone sweep in front of the bar in the morning and tries to have the personnel watching the door empty the receptacles “because we get the homeless coming through going through the butts,” she says. Although they aren’t allowed to, patrons still sneak outside with their drinks or bring them from other bars, leaving the empty containers.

The severity of the problem depends on the day of the week, says Gus Schuett, general manager of Warehouse 50. “When there’s a big event going on – i.e. Party on the Plaza that we host – of course there’s going to be litter. But we also have our cleanup crew that comes around and cleans all that up,” he says. “We try to get as much as we can at night, with the lighting that we do have, and then come back again in the morning.”

Kidd wants to see the city run the street sweeper downtown “on a much more regular basis,” he says. of public food benefits to assist the CCA efforts. In addition to having containers emptied more often, perhaps twice each day, “we need more trash receptacles, period,” he continues. “We need one on almost every block.”

Warehouse 50’s Schuett, who also resides downtown, says he has suggestions he plans to present to Kidd at the next meeting of downtown residents. One is to enlist members of fraternities and sororities at Youngstown State University to adopt an area or street downtown and clean it once a month. He also suggests downtown businesses could sponsor an area for cleanup and maintain that space.

Pictured: Is this a planter or an ashtray? It's both, and that frustrates downtown stakeholders.

Editor's Note: This story first appeared in the June edition of The Business Journal.

Copyright 2014 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.
CLICK HERE to subscribe to our twice-monthly print edition and to our free daily email headlines.