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What's Under Youngstown May Help What's On Top

By leasing land for drilling, city leaders in Youngstown, Ohio, hope to generate funds to demolish vacant buildings.
M.L. Schultze for NPR
By leasing land for drilling, city leaders in Youngstown, Ohio, hope to generate funds to demolish vacant buildings.

A century ago, when fiery steel mills were roaring to life in Youngstown, Ohio, builders were racing to put up homes, storefronts, barbershops and more.

Today, many of those buildings sit empty and rotting. With the mills mostly gone and the population down 60 percent from 1960, to just 67,000, the city needs millions of dollars to tear down roughly 4,000 vacant structures.

This year, they may get help. It's possible that what's under the city could be converted into cash to help clear away what's on top. The city is hoping to generate demolition funds by leasing parks, rights of way and other public lands to companies drilling for oil and natural gas.

Youngstown sits atop shale formations that may contain largely untapped reserves of fossil fuels. By using hydraulic fracturing — or "fracking" — techniques, energy companies can recover oil and gas and make money. But they need access to land to set up drilling operations.

The 'Frackmolishing' Plan

Last fall, the city council agreed to seek bids for mineral rights on city-owned parcels, which collectively add up to several hundred acres. As early as this summer, Youngstown officials plan to consider lease proposals for $5,000 to $7,500 an acre, plus signing bonuses.

DeMaine Kitchen, chief of staff for Youngstown Mayor Charles Sammarone, is a proponent of this plan, which some refer to as "frackmolishing." Kitchen, who is running for mayor to succeed the out-going Sammarone, says old buildings must be cleared away to make room for growth.

"It's more than just tearing down everything," Kitchen said. "It's what you can build up."

He wants to replace decayed buildings with vibrant neighborhoods and businesses.

"If we had the money, I would like to create these, like promise neighborhoods, where you give special incentives to people to move into these neighborhoods," he said. "Or you create research parks or technology parks."

Environmental Concerns

But because of concerns about potential environmental damage, some residents are opposed to fracking, which can generate huge amounts of toxic wastewater.

Putting fracking operations on park land "is a ludicrous idea," said Lynn Anderson, a Youngstown resident and anti-fracking activist. The chemicals used in fracking water "are very hazardous. We've got kids here with asthma; we don't need this process," she said.

Fracking opponents believe Youngstown, which has a thriving high-tech business incubator downtown, may be able to generate enough new wealth to spur urban renewal without turning to drilling for cash.

So far, though, the anti-fracking forces have not been able to derail drilling. On May 7, Youngstown residents, by a margin of 57 percent to 43 percent, rejected a charter amendment to ban fracking.

With that vote now settled, supporters of demolition projects are hoping fracking leases soon will be able to bring in money for bulldozers. Charlesetta McKinley, who lives in one of the gap-toothed neighborhoods on the south side, says she and her husband, Anthony, are city contractors. Their small company already has torn down scores of empty homes.

"The city is doing a very fine job of getting them down," she said of the demolition program. "We just need more resources."

Mineral Rights Value Undetermined

Whether the drilling leases will provide that new financial backing is not yet clear. Attorney Alan Wenger, a mineral rights lawyer in Youngstown, says no one is yet sure how much companies would be willing to pay for mineral rights on unproven parcels of land.

"In a lot of the city, it may not be practical to develop" major drilling projects, he said. "It could be that there's less value there than they are hoping for."

Some Youngstown boosters are hoping that if fracking does indeed turn out to be a good source of cash for the city, it will serve as just a stepping stone on a path to a cleaner, better future. One such booster is Phil Kidd, who runs a blog called Defend Youngstown and a shop called Youngstown Nation.

Kidd says ventures like the Youngstown Business Incubator are giving birth to the city's real future, involving good, sustainable jobs. But he also can see the need for money right now for demolition. And drilling leases offer a means to an end.

"I'd say, use it as an opportunity right now to make a more permanent transition moving forward for many years to come," Kidd said.

M.L. Schultze is a reporter for WKSU in Kent, Ohio.

Copyright 2013 WKSU

Marilyn Geewax is a contributor to NPR.
M.L. Schultze came to WKSU as news director in July 2007 after 25 years at The Repository in Canton, where she was managing editor for nearly a decade. She’s now the digital editor and an award-winning reporter and analyst who has appeared on NPR, Here and Now and the TakeAway, as well as being a regular panelist on Ideas, the WVIZ public television's reporter roundtable.
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