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."
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.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
A century ago, when steel mills were roaring to life in Youngstown, Ohio, builders scrambled to put up homes and storefronts, but the population there has plunged in recent decades, leaving thousands of vacant structures behind, and tearing them down will be expensive. Well, Youngstown officials believe the answer to their problem is just under their feet. The city plans to pay for demolition by leasing parks and other public lands for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
M.L. Schultze of member station WKSU reports on what's come to be known in Youngstown as frack-molishing.
M.L. SCHULTZE, BYLINE: Youngstown's downtown is thriving as the city finds new ways to make money. A natural gas industry is starting to take shape here but there is also a surprising surge in high-tech businesses. A business incubator that helps young software companies grow now employs more than 450 people. The city center also heads the nation's first Manufacturing Innovation Institute. Downtown apartment buildings are full and you can expect an hour wait any Saturday night at a dozen or so restaurants.
But take a short drive south or north, and you will see the boarded up signs of the old Youngstown; simple framed houses built to be within easy reach of the miles of mills that once stretched along the Mahoning River.
CHARLESETTA MCKINLEY: I'm in the process of buying that one and renovating that one and hopefully to get maybe the lot next door to it. And, as you can see there's a boarded one up next to that one.
SCHULTZE: Charlesetta McKinley lives on Idora Avenue, one of the gap-toothed neighborhoods on the near south side. She and her husband, Anthony, are among the contractors the city hires to get rid of some of the worst of the worst buildings, a half dozen or so at a time.
MCKINLEY: I actually like landscaping better, but there's only but a few months to do that and you can do the demolition all year round.
SCHULTZE: McKinley eases the Kobelco excavator toward a pile of wood that had been a house. It took about 90 minutes to get this far. Now comes the job of crushing the boards into splinters. She counts up the jobs since November.
MCKINLEY: Twenty-one, 14 and seven more, will have 42 done in the next two weeks. The city is doing a very fine job of getting them down. We just need more resources.
SCHULTZE: One way the city plans to get those financial resources, as early as this summer, is by taking bids for drilling on city land. It's putting together parcels for mineral rights it hopes to lease for 5,000 to $7500 an acre, plus signing bonuses. That way, companies setting up fracking operations on Youngstown-owned land will provide money for demolitions and new economic development.
DeMaine Kitchen is chief of staff for outgoing Mayor Charles Sammarone. He's running for mayor himself and he's a proponent of frack-molishing.
DEMAINE KITCHEN: It's more than just tearing down everything. But it's what you can build up?
SCHULTZE: He wants to replace decayed buildings with vibrant neighborhoods.
KITCHEN: I would like to see has assembled working with our land bank and create these, like, promise neighborhoods, where you give special incentives to people to move into these neighborhoods or you create research parks or technology parks.
SCHULTZE: But some people are worried about the potential for environmental damage from the hydraulic fracturing process, which generates massive amounts of wastewater. They point to a local business owner who was recently charged with illegal dumping of tens of thousands of gallons of fracking wastewater, all of it shot into the Mahoning River. And wastewater pumped into deep injection wells has been blamed for triggering small earthquakes in the area.
The opponents object so much to fracking that they put a ban on the ballot this spring. It lost big. But even many of the forces behind downtown's boom are a bit reserved when you mention frack-molishing. Take Phil Kidd, the Youngstown State grad and neighborhood organizer runs a blog called Defend Youngstown, and a shop called Youngstown Nation that sells...
PHIL KIDD: Basically everything in all things Youngstown. I have shirts. I have every book on Youngstown. Framed prints. I even sell some local food from some of the local, you know, food producers.
SCHULTZE: You have a tree decorated with...
KIDD: With perogies, yes.
SCHULTZE: Kidd's shop is up the street from the software business incubator, and he says ventures like that are the real future for Youngstown - clean, good jobs. As for fracking...
KIDD: I'd say, use it as an opportunity right now to make a more permanent transition moving forward for many years to come.
SCHULTZE: So for some, the drilling boom is a bridge to Youngstown's future, for others, the future itself - for better or worse.
For NPR News, I'm M.L. Schultze. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.