4-County Development Region in the Works

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Advocates for the creation of a seventh JobsOhio region that comprises Ashtabula, Columbiana, Mahoning and Trumbull counties point to the attention the region is getting as ample justification to sever it from the greater northeastern Ohio region.

The Ohio Secretary of State’s office shows articles of incorporation filed Oct. 2 for Lake to River Foundation Inc. The entity is being organized to allow the four counties “to meet economic development goals by maintaining focus and sustained effort toward strategic initiatives, prioritizing and allocating resources, and enforcing accountability, for the purpose of improving the prosperity of the region,” the document states.

JobsOhio, the state’s economic development arm, is in discussions with the office of Gov. Mike DeWine, stakeholders from the four counties and Team NEO, the JobsOhio economic development partner for the current 18-county region that includes the four counties, “about how to structure economic development efforts to best serve the Mahoning Valley,” JobsOhio spokesman Matt Englehart says.

“At a high level, we’re looking at unique opportunities that the lake-to-river region has in terms of economic development,” says Guy Coviello, president and CEO of the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber.

“This is still a work in progress,” says Alexa Sweeney Blackann, former president of Sweeney Chevrolet Buick GMC, who is spearheading the effort.

“There’s a lot of opportunity in these four counties,” taking into account the availability of roads, abundant water and the railroad system, Blackann says. She sees the formation of such a district as “less of a separation” from Team NEO than recognition of the attributes of the lake-to-river corridor and that it needs its own JobsOhio partner.

Local stakeholders began looking at creating the four-county development district about a year ago, Coviello says. The geography of the region has “some unique characteristics,” including deep-water ports at both ends and connections via Class 1 rail and state Route 11, as well as a shared workforce with neighboring counties in Pennsylvania.

DeWine “really believes in the area, thinks there has been a lot of opportunity and has seen the way that local organizations have been working together,” Blackann says.

Organizations such as the chamber, Western Reserve Port Authority, Eastgate Regional Council of Governments and others are collaborating to a degree they hadn’t previously, something that the governor and others in Columbus have noticed, according to Coviello.

The chamber is “fielding a much greater stream of interest from site selectors and companies wanting to expand and grow and come into our market. We need to come together and put the resources into tracking and completing those opportunities,” he says. The chamber can’t keep up with the volume of leads it receives regularly. This will help to ensure the resources are on pace to keep up with that volume.

“When you hear partners like the chamber or Eastgate or the port authority describe the amount of interest they’re getting in site selection or businesses interested in touring the Valley, those are organic indicators that would lead to a project like this,” Blackann says. “Those are the kinds of things that the governor pays attention to and why he would support this opportunity.”

Creation of the new district would allow the organization to guide economic development in the region and focus on just those four counties rather Team NEO’s current northeastern Ohio 18-county footprint, Coviello says.

“There is always some discomfort in this community that the folks in charge are in Cleveland. Whether that’s fair or not doesn’t matter. It’s just the perception,” Coviello says. There is a “built-in, preconceived notion” that communities outside the “three C’s” – Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati – are not always treated fairly.

“If you look at where the dollars go, that’s where they go. And areas like our area feel like we’ve been sort of left behind,” says Dave Johnson, CEO of Summitville Tiles Inc. in Summitville. Johnson is involved with the discussions about the new district. He is also the chairman of the Columbiana County Republican Party.

Columbiana County has long been a part of the Mahoning Valley identity, Johnson points out. The 6th congressional district includes both Mahoning and Columbiana counties, as does the Ohio Senate’s 33rd district, and Columbiana County shares the same media market as Mahoning and Trumbull counties.

“We are a unique economic development region in Ohio,” he says. “For so long, we’ve sort of been an adjunct of the Cleveland region and we felt that it would be important to have our own identity.”

For DeWine to even consider designating the four counties as their own economic development region is “a big deal,” says Anthony Trevena, WRPA executive director.

Like Coviello, Trevena notes the increase in inquiries the area is getting for development projects. While his office’s interactions with Team NEO and its staff have been positive, having an entity focused on a four-county region rather than a larger community could be, as he puts it, “helpful.”

“A hyper focus on the region for economic development projects makes sense,” Jim Kinnick, Eastgate’s executive director, says in agreement.

“Here at Eastgate we have discovered many important synergies in the lake-to-river region,” he says. “We came together around broadband expansion along the Route 11 corridor. We came together around the Appalachia Community Grant Program. And we came together to get mega sites ready for economic projects.”

Other partners involved include Growth Partnership for Ashtabula County, Youngstown Foundation and Columbiana County Port Authority.

The Youngstown Foundation “has always been involved in impacting people and transforming and improving the quality of life for the most vulnerable folks in the region,” says Lynnette Forde, executive director.

Funding for the entity would come from organizations in the region, with some funding coming from the state.

The new entity would operate independently of the chamber, which would dedicate the resources it now uses internally for economic development to the new organization, Coviello says.

“We look at this as something that is completely transformational in terms of how we practice economic development,” he says, “We thoroughly support this and are willing to provide all of the funding that would have supported our efforts in the past.”

Plus there is money within the recently established Valley Vision to support the initiative, Coviello says.

Local partners are working on the financial model for the new entity. Blackann is confident it has community support, particularly within the business community. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm around getting this off the ground,” she says.

With consumer products giant Kimberly-Clark Corp.’s announcement that it would build a new plant in Trumbull County and the increased lead volume overall, the timing is perfect, Coviello says.

“JobsOhio calls it a generational opportunity to grow the economy. We definitely feel the effects of that generational opportunity in this community,” Coviello says

“It’s probably more than that. It’s probably once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”