Mercy St. Vincent helps revive blighted Toledo neighborhood

November 1, 2013



When Karen Rogalski joined Mercy St. Vincent Medical Center in 2008, with a charge to revitalize the neighborhoods surrounding the Toledo, Ohio, hospital, she decided to start by walking the streets and getting to know the community and its residents.

During her very first stroll through the Cherry Street neighborhood, she was no more than a block away from the hospital when a young man stopped her and advised, "It's very dangerous around here, and you might get shot. I think you should go back to the hospital."

She continued her walk that day — with that man and his dog — and has continued for the past five years immersing herself in neighborhood life around the hospital in order to figure out how best to improve the area. Rogalski says, "Now I walk the neighborhood, and people see me and they come running out just to talk.

"You cannot do this work without building relationships and trust," she says.

Rogalski listens to residents to understand their needs; and, through the effort called the Cherry Street Legacy Neighborhood Project, she patched together a coalition of neighbors, hospital staff, nonprofits, churches, youth groups, governmental agencies and others to address those needs. The initiative will mark its crowning achievement at the end of this year as it completes construction on 40 new homes that replace blighted, abandoned properties.

"This is a very different project for a hospital to take on," says Rogalski. "It's a block-by-block approach to revitalization."

Roots of blight
Mercy St. Vincent has been located on Cherry Street since its 1855 founding. Like many neighborhoods in auto industry-reliant Toledo, the Cherry Street area that encompasses about 40 blocks has suffered mass population declines in recent years as manufacturers have left Toledo, taking hundreds of thousands of jobs with them.

"We've seen high unemployment in Toledo and an exodus of people and a ton of unoccupied housing stock," says William Farnsel, executive director of NeighborWorks Toledo Region, a nonprofit partner in the Cherry Street Legacy Neighborhood Project.

The Cherry Street area has a population of about 5,800. About 73 percent of residents are African-American; about 33 percent are 18 years old or younger; and the median household income is about $21,000, according to statistics from the 2010 U.S. census.

Rogalski and Farnsel said many community members are impoverished, and that includes many low-income single moms and grandparents raising grandchildren. Before the revitalization initiative, over a hundred blighted properties pocked the Cherry Street area.

Citing the link between individuals' health and the health of the Cherry Street neighborhood, Mercy St. Vincent leaders hired Rogalski to unite the community in improving the area.

Word on the street
At the outset, Rogalski commissioned a survey of a 700-home area. During face-to-face interviews, more than 200 people described how they felt about the neighborhood, identifying positives and negatives and issues of importance to them.

Rogalski combined that input with other survey results and with the impressions she gathered during her informal chats with neighbors.

Two themes emerged: Residents wanted stabilization of blighted areas and a reduction in crime. Rogalski formed a committee of residents and community partners to address each issue.

From blight to beauty
Rogalski and the neighborhood stabilization committee worked with the city and with volunteers to improve the Cherry Street area by repaving damaged roads, replacing burnt out street lights, removing fences that obstructed views and making other safety and cosmetic fixes.

Construction crew members work on one of the homes going up in the Cherry Street area in Toledo.


Addressing abandoned property was a bigger challenge. Many of the properties had murky titles — it was not clear who owned them. Many of the blighted buildings could not be demolished using city money because of an Ohio law prohibiting the razing of historical homes with public funds. And, the vast majority of the properties were so poorly valued — some of them appraised at less than $10,000 — that no private investor could count on recouping money spent to rehab properties.

Rogalski brought in partners who could help the neighborhood deal with the abandoned properties, including NeighborWorks and the city of Toledo.

"Karen is aggressive in finding partners and getting things done," says Farnsel.

"I'm a little pushy," Rogalski admits. Her background is in local government and social services, and she says she is able to draw on relationships with city, county and state agencies.

Her committee of residents and community partners created a formal approach for evaluating abandoned properties, determining which should be saved because of their historical value and which should be razed. The hospital funded the demolition of blighted historic homes, and the city funded the razing of the non-historic homes. About 100 properties have been razed over the last several years.

Residents wanted some of the newly cleared land to be preserved as green space; and so the committee worked with the county, through a program to sell plots to residents for $100 — in exchange for their agreement to maintain the ground.

For other cleared land, Mercy St. Vincent recruited the housing redevelopment agency NeighborWorks Toledo Region to the project and supported that agency in applying for Ohio Housing Finance Agency tax credits to finance new in-fill homes on the plots. About 120 nonprofits apply annually for the tax credits; and only 20 are selected. Farnsel said organizations receive the credits based on the perceived value of their projects, and "it is because of Mercy St. Vincent's involvement as a partner that we got the tax credits. That got the confidence of the state, because Mercy had shown the commitment to the neighborhood" through its broader Cherry Street Legacy Neighborhood Project, such as its beautification projects.

To fund the project, NeighborWorks America, the national agency, fronted $80,000; the city of Toledo loaned the project $750,000; and a bank loaned $7.5 million. NeighborWorks Toledo sold its tax credits to retire the debt.

Preserving architectural flavor
NeighborWorks Toledo and the other partners in the Cherry Street Legacy Neighborhood partnership worked with local architects to develop seven home designs that fit in with the Arts and Craft character of the Cherry Street neighborhood area. The colors — including brick red, off-white and sage green — are shades that were popular in the neighborhood during the Arts and Crafts architecture movement — many of the surrounding homes were built in that style.

The 40 new homes are energy efficient and use many recycled building materials.

To comply with the terms of the tax credits, the homes will be rental properties for low- and middle-income families for 15 years; and then the goal will be for them to be owner-occupied homes. Initially rents will be about $575 to $675 per month. Renters will sign an agreement to be drug-free and to not commit crime.

The Miller – Valentine firm will manage the properties for NeighborWorks.

The Cherry Street Legacy Neighborhood partnership — and NeighborWorks particularly — broke ground on the first of the homes in August and it expects construction to be complete at the end of this year. As Catholic Health World went to press, property managers had reported interest from prospective renters, and Farnsel said people might be moving in this month.

Rogalski and Farnsel say that while the construction projects around Cherry Street are a visible sign of the improvements going on, some of the most significant changes in the neighborhood are intangible.

"The citizens are engaged now — there has been a change in attitude," says Farnsel.

All the partners "have the same shared value — we want to make this community livable," says Rogalski. "It's the neighborhood and hospital working together to create and maintain a sustainable environment."


Copyright © 2013 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2013 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.