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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.

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