YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Infrastructure projects and partnerships are at the heart of what the Mahoning County Board of Commissioners point to as their approach to economic development.
As an example, the commissioners cite construction, begun in October in collaboration with Coitsville Township, on a 2,790-foot water main extension that will serve Camp Gabba, at the site of Farmer Casey’s Ranch, as well as support public health and encourage other economic development in the township.
The county has tried to take water and sewer to unincorporated areas to support development, they say. Other areas where they have extended those utilities are Lake Milton and Springfield Township.
“If you don’t have water and sewer, it makes it hard because some businesses need that,” Commissioner Anthony Traficanti says.
He also points to commissioners’ approval of $3 million from the general fund for additional road paving in the county that otherwise wouldn’t have been funded. “You have to have decent road – ingress and egress – to different businesses, “ he says.
Commissioner David Ditzler describes a $20 million sanitary sewer improvement project tying Poland, Springfield and New Middletown into Boardman. “It’s going to open up the whole corridor in that portion of the county,” he says.
Under the current board, Mahoning County established its first tax increment financing district to support Hollywood Gaming at Mahoning Valley Race Course racino in Austintown, saving the county nearly $4 million in roadway costs. Tax abatements approved by the county have supported McHenry Industries in Austintown and FedEx Freight in North Jackson.
Other specific projects the county has directly assisted in recent years include Trailstar International’s $9.3 million expansion project in Sebring, which the county supported with infrastructure gap financing, and the $30 million renovation of the Southern Park Mall in Boardman Township, for which the commissioners created a community reinvestment area.
Completion of that project will feature new entertainment, recreation, dining and shopping options inside and outside of the mall. “We have to change in economic development when it comes to retail. We have to change the way we do things in the 21st century,” Commissioner Carol Rimedio-Righetti says.
Had Washington Prime Group, which owns the mall, not committed to reinvesting in Southern Park, it could have closed, which would have been devastating to the county’s sales tax revenue, Traficanti says.
The retail and restaurant-dominated township is a key driver of the county’s permissive sales tax collections, according to the commissioners. Specific figures for sales tax generated by the township are unavailable. Last year, however, the county’s permissive sales tax brought in about $43.3 million. Year to date, the county has collected about $40.4 million.
Washington Prime’s commitment to the property was “instrumental” to maintaining Boardman as a “premier destination,” says Krista Beniston, township director of zoning and development.
“That investment really helped, is helping and will help reinvigorate the mall in general,” she says. “It’s a huge anchor for [U.S. Route] 224, so just seeing that reinvestment will also help encourage future economic development in the adjacent areas.”
Macy’s announced it would redevelop its existing store and J.C.Penney is maintaining its presence in the mall, she says.
The township has enjoyed significant investment along the corridor beyond the mall in recent years, including the new Meijer store at the corner of Route 224 and Tippecanoe Road. It is expected to open in the spring. “That’s a huge project for the west side of the township,” she says.
Elsewhere in Boardman, a Sheetz gas station and convenient store opened this year, along with a new Starbucks at the front of the former Kmart property.
The county works with several partners on economic development. It contracts with the Western Reserve Port Authority to manage the county’s community improvement corporation and with the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber for business retention and attraction services.
Commissioners revived the dormant CIC a few years ago, Rimedio-Righetti says. “The three of us figured that the CIC would be a good way to help the small businesses that can’t go to [Valley Partners] or can’t go to the port authority.”
So far, the CIC has been project-based, says Sarah Lown, public finance manager for the port authority and executive director of the CIC. “In part, that’s because we don’t have a hefty bank balance to invest in a long-term strategy,” she says.
The bulk of the group’s attention is focused on redevelopment of the former Youngstown Developmental Center in Austintown, now known as the Mahoning Valley Campus of Care.
“We consider this an economic development initiative because it involves eight partners and the creation of new jobs for the partners,” Lown says. It also provides job-training opportunities for adults with special needs. “We think it will be a model that other communities in the country will want to replicate,” she adds.
This year the county paid the Regional Chamber $23,000 to support its business retention and attraction efforts, reports Tom Humphries, the chamber’s president and CEO. In 2019, the chamber conducted 204 one-on-one conversations with company decision-makers, resulting in $27.7 million in investment in Mahoning County, 676 retained jobs and 73 new jobs. This year, the Mahoning County effort led to 193 conversations, $26.4 million in investment, 267 jobs retained and 201 jobs created.
“Our focus is on what the customers’ needs and expectations are,” Humphries says, and showing properties in Mahoning and Trumbull counties that meet the prospects’ needs. Each county, city, village and township has “different opportunities and we try to show them the things that they actually are looking for,” he adds.
The county also looks to capitalize on technological advancements, including the growth of additive manufacturing in Youngstown and electric vehicle development in Lordstown in neighboring Trumbull County. There, General Motors and LG Chem are building their Ultium Cells battery plant and Lordstown Motors Corp. is launching in GM’s former assembly plant.
“Half of the people that worked at [GM] lived in Mahoning County,” Rimedio-Righetti says. “Even Trumbull County people shop in Mahoning, so anytime they come here and shop we get sales tax.” She also expects the county to benefit from ancillary businesses that develop to serve those companies.
Humphries confirms that the chamber has shown sites in Mahoning County to companies interested in the region because of Lordstown Motors and Ultium Cells.
“Because of the complexity of Lordstown Motors and Ultium, both of these have supplier needs and expectations,” Humphries says. “So there is interest for support in that supply chain to be close to those facilities.”
Another part of the picture is the shift in training programs at Youngstown State University and other education centers to fit the emerging technology fields. The county sold the former misdemeanant jail downtown to YSU, which is transforming it into an advanced manufacturing training center.
“They’re hiring engineers right now at a very decent salary. You see the shift in the paradigm in the economy based on the high-tech side of it,” Traficanti says. “We want them to stay here. We don’t want to lose that brain trust.”
In conjunction with Trumbull and Ashtabula counties, Mahoning County is examining how to enhance its technological infrastructure.
Eastgate Regional Council of Governments recently awarded a $191,100 contract to assess broadband infrastructure in the three counties as a step toward determining feasibility of broadband as a utility.
That kind of infrastructure is going to be increasingly important for development in the county, “especially since we’re moving in the direction we are,” Ditzler says. “Even if we get beyond this pandemic, it’s changed a lot of things in the way we do business.”
Adds Rimedio-Righetti: “We all have friends that are working at big companies [as well as family members] and they have told us that they’re looking at working at home being the norm.” She continues, “It’s more reasonable economically for the company.”
Pictured: A 2,790-foot water main extension that serve Camp Gabba, at the site of Farmer Casey’s Ranch, in Coitsville Township.