Economic Development

Brown Convenes Discussion about Economic Challenges

WARREN, Ohio – Representatives from a cross-section of the local economy painted a picture Wednesday of the promises and challenges that lie ahead for the Mahoning Valley during a roundtable discussion hosted by U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown.

It was the first in a series of roundtables the senator has scheduled this week across the state to promote his economic programs, which include renegotiating unpopular trade treaties such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, or Nafta.

The roundtable included representatives from organized labor, economic development agencies, higher education, workforce development and nonprofits.

“We need to fix a trade policy that’s betrayed the Valley for 30 years,” Brown, a Democrat, told reporters following the hour-long discussion at the United Steelworkers Local 1375 union hall. “I remember one of the first votes I cast in Congress was against the North American Free Trade Agreement. You didn’t have to be that smart to see how bad it was going to be for my state for this Valley.”

“Trade is really impacting us,” said Rich Sayers, president of the United Steelworkers Local 1375, whose membership works at steel giant ArcelorMittal’s coke plant in Warren. “Everything we lose capacity-wise is due to imports.”

Pat Gallagher, district subdirector for the Steelworkers, added competition from overseas is both intense and unfair, estimating that 30% are imports that are “dumped” at below cost in U.S. ports.

“If you want a strong economy that works well, you’ve got to have manufacturing,” Gallagher said. “We need some sort of national industrial policy that’s comprehensive.”

Brown said it’s imperative that reforms in trade policy work hand-in-hand with local and statewide partnerships, which in many cases depend on federal dollars provided through agencies such as the Appalachian Regional Commission and the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

Trump has proposed cutting funding to the EDA and eliminating the ARC. “I’m very disappointed with the administration’s wanting to get rid of the Appalachian Regional Commission, get rid of the Great Lakes Initiative, and cutting the Economic Develop Administration,” the senator said.

Brown is running for re-election in 2018. State Treasurer Josh Mandel and Michael Gibbons, an investment banker, have announced their plans to seek the Republican Party’s nomination for the seat.

Other factors affecting the Valley’s manufacturing economy are driven by demand and consumer tastes, said Tim O’Hara, vice president of Local 1112 of the United Autoworkers union, which represents 2,000 hourly workers at General Motors Co.’s Lordstown Complex.

Sales of the Chevrolet Cruze have slumped as more consumers have bought or leased larger sport utility vehicles because fuel prices remain low. As a result, nearly 700 employees on Lordstown’s third shift remain on indefinite layoff and there’s no indication the shift would be recalled soon.

“Warren has been hit hard – one of the hardest hit in the Mahoning Valley when it comes to trade and fair trade,” said Mayor Doug Franklin. “All our community wants is an equal opportunity. A lot of communities have given up on manufacturing. We haven’t.”

What is needed in Washington, Franklin said, is a strategy that could help struggling cities that have seen their job base eviscerated by plant closings. “We need all the help we can get from Washington,” he stated.

Michael Conway, executive director of the Mahoning Valley Economic Development Corp., said he’s concerned about Trump’s proposal to slash key programs such as the ARC and EDA, not to mention other initiatives the agency uses to assist small business.

To illustrate the importance of these programs, Conway told the senator that MVEDC was awarded a $2 million EDA grant in 1978 as seed money for its loan program. That fund has now grown to about $6 million and is used to help finance local businesses with expansions and startup costs. “Those are dollars that have gone out in the community and created jobs,” he said.

Meanwhile, there are concurrent efforts to ramp-up education, training and apprenticeship programs across the region.

Tony DiTommaso, president of Local 171 of the Carpenter & Joiners union, said his trade and other crafts within the Western Reserve Building Trades and Construction Council are doing well when it comes to the work outlook for this season.

“We’re growing our apprenticeship programs. We’re keeping our members employed, and are actually looking outside of the region to bring some other people in to help with the amount of work,” he said.

Among these projects is the $900 million Lordstown Energy Center, a natural-gas fueled electrical generation plant under construction. A second plant is planned for the same site while there are discussions of a potential third generation plant there, DiTommaso said.

“The oil and gas industry is growing,” he said. “We need to complete this grid system. The Lordstown Clean Energy plant is a good example of diversifying that grid.”

Last month, Brown’s office helped to organize summer manufacturing camps intended to introduce kids in grade school the concepts of basic manufacturing. The program was made possible through a partnership between Oh Wow! The Roger & Gloria Jones Children’s Center for Science and Technology in Youngstown and the Youngstown YWCA.

The program runs three weeks, each week devoted to a specific type of manufacturing, noted Lisa Long, associate director at Oh Wow. The first week, which ended June 23, targeted the music industry, when students built their own musical instruments. The second week will cover boat building and design, and the final week will involve the construction industry.

Campers are also taken on tours through local manufacturers in order to get a firsthand glimpse at a production line and how products are made, she said.

“It shows that there are opportunities to do something that you are interested in,” Long said. “If they fall in love with something they love to do, there are a lot of places where they are able to actually do it.”

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.