MOUNT VERNON — A recent West End Neighborhood assessment delves into residents' feelings, reveals public perception, and offers recommendations to solve ongoing problems.
The study, completed in May, is the third neighborhood assessment conducted through the Area Development Foundation.
In February 2020, Lucas Kreuzer, a Kenyon College intern with the ADF, outlined a plan to revitalize the city's near-east side. Then, in August 2020, he unveiled a South Vernon Neighborhood report.
Twenty students from the Mount Vernon Nazarene University Honors Program conducted the West End assessment under the direction of Dr. Brett Wiley. Students Chase Brown and Judy Bennett, along with Wiley, presented the results to the Knox County Land Bank board on Nov. 3.
The West End is considered from Main Street west to the Kokosing River. It includes two blocks north of West High Street and the area south of West High to the river.
In reviewing the neighborhood's history, Brown noted that the financial disparity between the West End and the rest of the city was not present initially. He said of the assessment and its recommendations: "It's not about catching up to the East Side. Rather, it's about restoring the balance."
Brown said the Federal Emergency Management Agency's designation of much of the West End as being in the flood plain hurts residents because they pay higher insurance premiums than they would otherwise.
“Advances in technology have reduced that risk [of flooding], but insurance standards do not reflect that,” he said.
Brown said crime is disproportionate on the West side compared to population, with statistics showing that property crimes are fairly common. Alarm, burglary, theft calls, and stolen vehicles are high compared to the number of dwellings and businesses in the neighborhood.
Interpersonal crimes and domestic calls are also high. Disturbance calls averaged 231 annually for 2019, 2020, and 2021. Domestic violence, attempted suicide, drug-related, and civil-matter calls are high and contribute to public perception. They also point to the well-being of the community in terms of residents' unease and safety concerns.
The homeless population also contributes to public perception and the neighborhood's sense of well-being.
The neighborhood's population is 2,179. Of the 827 households, 47% are owner-occupied and 53% renter occupied. In addition, the area includes 47 vacant houses.
The assessment notes a lack of community services in the neighborhood, although residents can access services in other parts of town. For example, the main grocery shopping centers and most health care options are east of downtown.
On visiting the West End, the MVNU students noted that the quality of curbs and home maintenance decreases as one moves west. There are homes with overgrown lawns, peeling paint, broken chimneys, and other problems.
Lighting is an issue, with lights found only at intersections. There are few garages on the north side of High Street, with residents parking on washed-out gravel patches in their front yards.
Positive visuals include Riverside Park, trees and greenery, and the good brick condition on West Chestnut Street.
Students asked respondents to answer 14 questions about community events, parks and recreation, safety, businesses, and community services.
Relating to safety, Bennett said about 83% of responses were positive, but there were a lot of comments on thefts, the homeless population, and drug use.
Responses were mixed on whether residents knew their neighbors well, with some citing being too busy as the reason why they did not. Most respondents said having a grocery store nearby would be helpful, but most also said public transportation was not an issue.
Respondents said there was a good mix of services/businesses but requested more businesses, stores, privately owned restaurants, and events for children. Several commented that Riverside Park would be a great place for a splash pad.
Parks, friendly people, proximity to work, and affordability were positive aspects noted about the neighborhood.
Bennett acknowledged that the survey has several drawbacks, including the low number of respondents (35). Additionally, of those who responded, only 11 met the preferred demographic criteria of the survey.
Still, the students believe the survey provided a starting point and helped explain public perception. They recommend that the survey be continued and expanded.
Conclusions and recommendations
“A lot could be done to make the community beautiful,” Bennett said, citing greenery, painting, and other home repairs as examples.
Referencing the large percentage of renters vs. homeowners, the students note that landlords are partially responsible for the lack of property maintenance. They recommend developing incentives for homeowners to beautify their properties.
“Renters do not have enough at stake,” Bennett said.
The report also recommends that the city seek to remove the West End from FEMA's flood plain.
“This would directly affect the citizens as it would decrease their insurance cost,” Brown said. “It will also help with renters being incentivized to own, which would result in better upkeep.”
To counteract the feelings of isolation that West End residents feel, Honors Professor Wiley said events should be created in the West End. For example, child-centered activities in Riverside Park would help residents meet each other and draw citywide residents to the area.
Wiley also said that revitalizing unused or vacant lots and encouraging investment in the area would show interest in the west part of town.
The assessment included other recommendations:
•Increased police presence, particularly at night
•Incentivize a neighborhood watch program
•Implement listening sessions as the West End is underrepresented in the city
•Enhance and preserve parks, especially Arch Park