Elyrian Landscape, Elyria, Ohio from the New York Times

Mayor Holly Brinda of Elyria, Ohio, passing out candy at the start of the city’s annual Memorial Day parade this year.

October 14, 2012

New Mayor, Big To-Do List

ELYRIA, OHIO — Near the cherished gazebo of Ely Square Park, just outside Donna’s Diner, the mayor of Elyria waits with patient grace to perform a wedding already running late. She wears a blue blazer, white pants, a red-white-and-blue scarf and an American flag lapel pin that dazzles when caught by the midday June sun. It is Flag Day.

Finally, to the soft aahs of the park’s jubilant fountain, the bride arrives in her white finery to take the hand of her buzz-cut fiancé, whose oversize gray suit ends at his feet in crumpled surprise. The dozen or so guests, some in dresses and holding cameras, others in T-shirts and holding cigarettes, rise from park benches as the mayor prepares to speak.

Whenever Mayor Holly Brinda smiles, dimples appear, and here they are again, as she studies the scene of promise before her. Who knows what the future holds, but these newlyweds enter into their compact with hope, just as Ms. Brinda did when she became the mayor of Elyria on New Year’s Day a few months before.

Challenges were to be expected, of course. But the mayor has discovered that her to-do list grows anytime she steps out into her city — a city a generation past prosperity.

Where to begin?

The cutbacks that have cost city jobs and reduced city services. The pall settling over downtown. The lack of money to address blight, including the burned-out General Industries factory that a neighboring Fortune 500 company is complaining about — and you never, ever want to give any business a reason to leave.

Don’t misunderstand. Elyria has a lot to offer: several global companies that use cutting-edge technology, one of the country’s very best hospitals, a park system that includes not one but two waterfalls, a historic high school that recently underwent a $70 million overhaul; summer concerts in Ely Square. ...

Then again, foreclosed properties pepper the city. The recently renovated train station serves no passenger trains and little purpose, with no connection to the tiny Amtrak depot a quarter of a mile away. Oh, and feral cats: on top of everything else, Elyria has 14,000 feral cats.

Ms. Brinda, 54, plans to address all these problems, cats included. But every day presents a new obstacle, taking up time, eating up momentum. She’ll get there, she vows. This is her home. And if any comfort can be found in her city’s travails, it is in knowing that Elyria is not alone.

“We’re a small window into the opportunities and struggles of all people across the country,” she says.

But first things first. Here is a hopeful couple standing before her in the gazebo, in a park that holds romantic resonance for her as well. With radiant pride in her role, Mayor Brinda begins the wedding ceremony:

“On behalf of the City of Elyria. ... ”

Elyria’s Challenges

On behalf of the City of Elyria, on another fine day, the mayor takes a leisurely drive through her 20-square-mile workplace: a city with 455 public employees, 55,000 residents and about $30 million in its general fund. She climbs into her black S.U.V. and buckles up, her city identification dangling from a lanyard around her neck.

A toy cat, not feral, and photographs of her four grown children rest on the dashboard of her “official” — that is, personal — car. During her successful challenge last year against an incumbent and fellow Democrat, Ms. Brinda vowed to save precious resources by eliminating a city car for the mayor.

The official Web site for Elyria celebrates the city as the home of the padded bicycle seat, the colored golf ball, the Easter Seal Society, the Heisman Trophy winner Vic Janowicz. “Founded at the fork of the scenic Black River in 1817 by Heman Ely,” it says, “Elyria is a city of ‘firsts’ and has all the right ingredients to put Elyrians first again.”

That wording — “to put Elyrians first again” — hints of the myriad challenges awaiting the new mayor. They begin to reveal themselves the moment she pulls out of City Hall’s parking lot, since most of the money set aside for street paving this year has been reallocated for more urgent needs.

The mayoral dimples disappear when she talks about the city’s problems. This is where her great-grandparents, German immigrants, settled, and where her father, an electronics technician for the Federal Aviation Administration, met her mother, a receptionist at the old General Industries factory that is now a fire-ravaged ruin. She is a fourth-generation Elyrian, and proud of it.

After twirling batons as a majorette at Elyria High School, Ms. Brinda earned a journalism degree at Ohio State University in Columbus but returned for a copywriting job at a local radio station. That is where she met her husband, Greg Brinda, who would go on to become a Cleveland radio sports personality. His courtship included lunches in Ely Square, by the fountain, where they imagined a shared future.

She helped to raise a family, went to graduate school, held several management jobs and served as the school board president. Then, last year, she was elected mayor on the implied promise to restore some of the grandeur depicted in her late father’s vast collection of Elyria postcards.

“This was a destination place,” she recalls him proudly telling her.

The mayor has kept those books of postcards. “And before I’m through,” she says, “I’m going to create a new postcard for the city of Elyria.”

But the Elyria she inherited had lost most of its manufacturing base over the years. Then came the recent recession to smother any shoots of recovery. Income tax revenues dropped, the state reduced financing to local governments and the state’s estate tax was repealed, meaning that the Elyrias of Ohio will soon be operating with even less money.

The resultant casualties included amenities that once fueled Elyrian pride. No Fourth of July fireworks to blow holes in the night sky. No winter festival of lights at Finwood Estate to bedazzle the children. No park rangers patrolling Cascade Park. No forester. No cemetery supervisor.

Now, Frank Gustoff, the parks and recreation director, is also responsible for the city’s trees and cemeteries. “One day I’m teaching a 4-year-old how to play soccer,” he says. “The next day I’m carrying a casket, and the next I’m inspecting a tree.”

In other words, he says, “From tots to plots.”

Faded Glory

Heading south on Middle Avenue, Mayor Brinda passes the old Lorain County Courthouse, a stately sandstone building from 1881 that is featured in so many old postcards. But the business of law moved years ago to a new building, and now the old courthouse sits underused and slipping into disrepair.

The mayor, though, is considering the county’s offer to lease the building to the city for $1. Maybe its practical grandeur could be restored one day as, say, a cultural center for the display of local artwork.

“It bothers me that the building is being allowed to go,” she says, sounding a familiar theme.

She points proudly to the just-renovated Elyria High School, her alma mater, whose teams and marching band still elicit shouts of “Go Pioneers!” But more than two-thirds of the city’s children in public schools receive free or discounted meals — a drastic increase in recent years, she says, that reflects the steady shrinking of the middle class.

“Parents of the last generation were in a position to help their kids,” the mayor says one day. “And I think a lot of parents in my generation are just trying to figure out how to make it themselves.”

Not far from the high school is Ely Stadium, where Vic Janowicz dominated schoolboy football in the late 1940s, and where Ike Maxwell starred on a championship team in the early 1970s. Mr. Janowicz went on to play in the National Football League; Mr. Maxwell now walks the streets of Elyria shouting out complicated word puzzles that people struggle to solve.

The mayor’s drive meanders through Elyria’s highs and lows. Here are business anchors like the Ridge Tool Company, the precision-engineering giant Parker Hannifin, and Invacare, a leading maker of wheelchairs and other home-care products. Here is BASF Catalysts, which, thanks in part to a $24.6 million federal stimulus grant, is opening a plant to help in the making of lithium-ion batteries that, among other uses, power electric cars.

“Huge, huge, huge,” the mayor says.

Unemployment here hovers near the national average of 7.8 percent, but the relatively low number provides spare comfort. “The high-paying manufacturing jobs have been replaced by lower-paying retail and food-service jobs,” she explains.

The BASF expansion, she says, is a step toward helping Elyria and the rest of northeast Ohio find a marketable niche, in concert with her hope to attract businesses interested in sustainability, establish a local job-creation tax credit and hire an economic development director. “It takes years, but we are doing some things,” she says.

The mayor drives on. Here are the stately historic homes along Washington Avenue, and the upper-middle-class neighborhoods like Overbrook and University Oaks. Here, too, are the poor and working-class neighborhoods, plagued by foreclosure.

Here is the nationally respected EMH Elyria Medical Center, built by a grief-stricken community a century ago after a trolley accident killed nine, injured dozens and highlighted the absence of a city hospital. And here is the bone-white Y.M.C.A. building, built in the early 1960s and shuttered since 2006.

The empty Y reflects the diminishing presence of the business titans who once called Elyria home and whose philanthropy provided an extra revenue stream when, say, the need for a hospital arose. That sense of ownership is no longer as strong, since most of the corporate leaders no longer live here.

But, she quickly adds, the global companies and the small businesses, the Rotary and the Kiwanis still rise to the moment. They chipped in for $1.2 million of various improvements at the high school that were not covered by public financing. They raised $60,000 for a day camp that provided summer activities for 500 children.

And the mayor hopes they will support her latest campaign: to raise enough money to restore the Elyrian traditions of holiday light displays at Finwood Estate and Ely Square.

For $25, you’re a “sugar plum” donor; for $5,000, you’re “silver and gold.”

Reimagining Downtown

Finally, the mayor turns onto Broad Street, the commercial thoroughfare of downtown Elyria that most challenges the communal imagination. If it is true, as she likes to say, that a healthy city requires a healthy downtown, then the patient is sick.

The uneasy emptiness of the storefronts along Broad Street is interrupted here and there by an office or two, a bar or two, a furniture store, a tattoo parlor, a strip club. The buildings, many from the 19th century, seem to rest in a movie-set state of pause, as if waiting for someone to call “Action!”

“You kind of see remnants of greatness,” Ms. Brinda says. That kind of greatness once known to the retirees of the Breakfast Club who meet every morning down at Donna’s, just around the corner. A greatness that slipped away as the Midway Mall opened on the city’s outskirts in the 1960s, as the General Motors plant shut down in the 1980s, as the makers of springs and bolts and other things went away.

A faint seediness has replaced the greatness. But just as Mayor Brinda has hope for the old courthouse, so too does she harbor hope for downtown.

Beyond working with volunteers to provide flower baskets and other aesthetic touches that the city can no longer afford, she is talking with urban planners about developing a mixed-used strategy — through creating tax breaks, maybe, or special-improvement districts, or working with the medical center to find housing for its work force in these historic buildings.

“It’s a way to start,” she says. But sometimes Elyria gets in its own way.

Forty years ago, the city moved out of the old, inadequate City Hall on Ely Square and into a Broad Street building that the Sears department store had abandoned for the Midway Mall. But it returned a few years ago to the newly restored City Hall, and the Sears building was emptied and mostly forgotten.

That is until Mayor Brinda learned shortly after taking office in January that her administration had inherited a crisis: the neglected and now-unstable Sears building. Among other problems, rainwater had been pouring for who knows how long through a hole in the roof and down three stories to the basement, flooding the adjacent buildings and causing wholesale rot.

City workers in hazmat suits returned from an expedition into the building with photographs of black mold covering everything from municipal records to solid-wood furniture. “Rotted from the inside out,” recalls Mary Siwierka, the city’s safety service director.

By its own neglect, then, the City of Elyria had contributed to the ruination of the very downtown it was forever trying to revive. The city had no choice but to condemn its own building, which it must now demolish before the structure collapses onto Broad Street.

Estimated cost: up to $600,000 that the mayor would have preferred to spend in other ways. And this doesn’t include what might have to be paid to the owners of the adjacent buildings.

Mayor Brinda reluctantly accepts that most residents will not care that the damage occurred before she took office. In the end, she says, “I am The City.”

Not long ago, Ms. Brinda attended a function at the renovated train station, which is formally called a transportation center but with no passenger trains and not many buses could more accurately be described as a glorified catering hall. For many years, her grandfather had been a ticket seller and a train dispatcher in this building, giving voice to a community’s vitality.

“So I’m sitting there at the table, talking to these people, and they’re just marveling at this building,” she recalls one day. “And I couldn’t help but think about him sitting there, and, um. ... ”

Her voice breaks.

“And how great it could still be.”

Bearing Witness

An Elyrian wedding continues in the sun-dappled gazebo of Ely Square, where the officiant, Mayor Holly Brinda, seems at ease in the park where she was once courted by the man who became her husband.

To her left is Donna’s Diner, where she gets her bacon-lettuce-and-tomato sandwiches topped by a fried egg. To her right is the restored City Hall, where she can hear the evening songs of nearby church bells. Behind her is the park fountain, which adorns more than a few of her father’s beloved postcards.

A new postcard for Elyria. So much to do.

But first the mayor of Elyria asks, “As we stand here today as witness to this union, is there anyone present who knows of any reason why we may not legally continue with this wedding?”

And someone shouts, “Absolutely not!”

 

Back

Created 23 October 2012