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Market Street runs about 16 miles from downtown Youngstown in Mahoning County to near Columbiana in Columbiana County.
For more than a decade, a Youngstown association has been focused on rehabilitating a two-mile stretch of the road, from the bridge in downtown Youngstown to Indianola Avenue on the South Side.
Among the scenes of daily life of traffic, runners and shoppers, Community Corrections Association signs are visible. The signs identify 16 vacant lots renovated and manicured by the CCA.
Rick Billak, the executive director of CCA and the Market Street Corridor Improvement Project, said the vacant buildings that used to stand on some of the properties were hideouts.
“In the past you’d see hookers and drug dealers hiding in the shadows of those buildings,” he said. “Now they can’t hide.”
He witnessed what life was like on the stretch of road in its heyday.
“It was the place to be on a Saturday night,” said Billak. “You’d have two lanes on both sides, cruising the strip here. There’d be clubs on every corner.”
Through the 1980s and 1990s, blight set in on the property and vacant buildings eventually dominated the neighborhood.
By 1996, Billak knew something needed to be done. He proposed the project to the CCA board, and it was approved.
“So from that point through the current, we tore down over 40 buildings and put up the landscaped lots that you see to the tune of about $700,000 over that period of time.”
The demolition crews and landscapers were hired professionally to work on the lots, but to maintain the lawns, the CCA turned to its own organization. CCA helps rehabilitate felons coming out of prison and the inmates at the facility now work on the lots.
The facility owns and occupies six buildings along Market Street. Its main offices are in an old bank building and it also occupies the old South Side Library.
Residents of the neighborhood love what CCA has done for the area.
“You could not find a better organization for the well-being of inner city Youngstown than CCA,” said Fred Hanley, of Emch Spring and Truck Repair.
“So it is very contagious in the best sense of the word and very positive, very positive impact on the neighborhood,” said Rev. Ed Noga, pastor at St. Patrick Church.
The newest CCA logo can be seen on a mural that was recently painted on the building leading into downtown Youngstown. It’s Rick Billak’s goodbye, as he plans to retire at the end of the year.
No tax dollars were used in the rehabilitation project. Billak said the money came from fundraising and interest paid on CCA’s cash reserves.
“And the signature piece with my forthcoming retirement in December is the mural going up by the bridge and it’s kind of like sayonara and that’s our footprint on the Market Street Corridor Improvement Project.”