Economic Development

Shipping Container Incubator Proposed for South Side

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Daniel Littles has sold produce at flea markets in Youngstown and Warren for seven months.

So far, business is OK but he might do better with a storefront and additional equipment, he says. At the very least, he’s intrigued by the concept of using shipping containers to house a business incubator on the South Side.

“I have to actually visualize and see it, but it sounds great to me,” he said.

More than 50 citizens and community partners gathered at the Covelli Centre Tuesday morning to hear more about the proposal to establish an incubator on the four corner lots at the intersection of Hillman Street and West Warren Avenue as a pilot project.

Among them were Jonathan Bentley, executive director of the city’s human relations commission; Bob Burke, city parks director; Councilman Julius Oliver, 1st Ward; and Guy Burney, coordinator of the Community Initiative to Reduce Violence.

In addition to the city administration and City Council, partners include Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp. and grassroots groups, Bentley said.

Proponents want to place two modified shipping containers on each of the four corners of the South Side intersection. Objectives are to beautify the area and to provide help to entrepreneurs who have difficulty securing traditional storefronts and financing to launch their businesses.

“They have the work ethic, they have the drive, they have a solid business plan, they have that heart to start a business, but they just need help getting over the hump and getting into a space,” Bentley said. As plans are solidified, entrepreneurs will have the opportunity to sign up for business classes and get connected with financing and other assistance.

“We want to transform that neighborhood,” he added.

The incubator also could provide opportunities for individuals returning to society after incarceration, overcoming the hurdle many face of finding employment after their release, Burney said.

“Detroit is doing a lot of these. There’s some in Columbus now,” said Ed Macabobby Jr., owner of Steel Valley Container Structures, North Lima, which is working with the city and its partners on the project.

The containers also could provide spaces for community services, Bentley said.

“It’s much cheaper than purchasing an actual storefront or building a building,” Oliver said. Many commercial buildings in the city would require huge investments to upgrade them. “This is a much more cost efficient way to go,” he said.

The parks department is working with the public works department to determine a cost for the project, including connecting the containers to utilities and landscaping sites, Burke said. “We don’t know a true number yet,” he said.

The city is looking to do the project for under $100,000, Oliver said. In addition to providing funds to support the project, the city will seek grants and sponsorships for the incubators, he said.

“This is the pilot,” said Bentley, who envisions similar incubators around the city. Ideally, all eight containers would be in place sometime this summer. The intent is to make sure the tenants are diverse and meet neighborhood needs, such as providing access to fresh produce.

Ideally, the businesses in the incubators will be so successful that within a year or two they will be ready to graduate to traditional storefront space that could be developed in the neighborhood, Bentley said.

Rent and other fees would be kept as low as possible, he added.

Another objective is to reduce crime by providing young people options and opportunities for entrepreneurs, as well as to make the neighborhood itself more self-sustaining, Oliver said. Responding to concerns about crime in the neighborhood – including drugs and prostitution – Police Chief Robin Lees said his department would do what it can to stabilize the area.

“You all have to buy in,” Lees emphasized. That includes neighborhood residents calling police when they see illegal activity or even intervening with a family member to prevent such activity from taking place.

Pictured: A shipping container is repurposed as a small coffee bar in Denver.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.