LORDSTOWN, Ohio – Semi trailer after semi trailer sit neatly parked along a seemingly endless stretch of delivery bays at the TJX HomeGoods distribution center, a 1.2 million-square-foot hub that is ramping up operations in Lordstown.
The new center on Ellsworth-Bailey Road, slotted with more than 460 receiving and delivery docks, points to the future of the corridor – and underscores just how important the logistics and distribution industry is to this section of northwestern Mahoning County and southwestern Trumbull County.
It’s an industry that’s likely to rapidly expand, as officials make preparations for what could be among the most sophisticated transportation corridors in the country.
“The pandemic created a perpetual online economy,” says Mike Hripko, economic recovery coordinator for the Eastgate Regional Council of Governments. “Knowing that the distribution business is growing globally, with our location halfway between New York and Chicago and proximate to several major markets, we are well-positioned to be a logistics hub.”
That line, “halfway between New York and Chicago,” has served as a rolling sales pitch for decades among economic development specialists and agencies here with measured success. Today, it’s more relevant than ever given the worldwide migration toward online sales and shopping.
“The best thing we can do is make sure our infrastructure is fully supportive of that type of business and economy,” Hripko says.
On July 13, Eastgate submitted a proposal to the U.S. Department of Transportation for $3.9 million through the Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity, or Raise, grant program.
The funds would be used to build electric-vehicle charging stations along Bailey Road near Interstate 76 in North Jackson and I-80 in Lordstown, a broadband spine that would provide local access to the internet for businesses on the corridor, and a triple transfer trailer yard in Lordstown. The trailer yard would accommodate freight haulers that need to reduce their loads from three trailers to two so they can navigate local roadways, Hripko says.
“The closest transfer yard is in Rootstown or Akron,” Hripko says. “We thought it would be advantageous if we were able to put that transfer yard in Lordstown to benefit our local distributors.”
Eastgate would contribute another $1.1 million in non-federal matching funds toward the project, Hripko says.
These are merely first steps in a broader effort to transform the area into a technologically superior logistics hub that could attract new development, especially in the electric-vehicle industry, Hripko emphasizes.
Earlier this year, Eastgate secured a $500,000 grant from the Ohio Department of Transportation to perform a more intensive study on the corridor and assess the comprehensive technological needs of the area. The idea is to use the study as a basis to pursue a much larger Raise grant in 2022.
“It could run the range from inroad to wireless charging, to energy generation, to a truly connected smart corridor that could enable cab-to-dock communications,” Hripko says. “We want to find out what’s the greatest value to our current and prospective employers in that area.”
Additional research would explore how other countries have applied smart technologies to their logistics operations and whether they are relevant in the Mahoning Valley.
Eastgate partnered with the Western Reserve Port Authority, the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber and Youngstown State University to apply for a much more ambitious grant last year – $25 million – but the project was not funded. It is not clear as to how much the agency would request in 2022.
“We’d like to be on the leading edge,” says Lordstown Mayor Arno Hill. The mayor says applications such as wireless-vehicle charging could emerge in and around Lordstown, placing the area well ahead of others across the country. There’s also the draw of major developments such as Ultium Cells LLC’s $2.3 billion EV battery manufacturing plant.
“We have a lot of industrial land available,” Hill says. “We haven’t snagged anyone recently. But we’re working on it. We’re getting calls every day.”
The proposed “smart” broadband corridor would begin in Jackson Township at the intersection of Mahoning Avenue and Bailey Road in Mahoning County, then run north along Bailey past the TJX warehouse and the Lordstown Motors plant to Salt Springs Road. A portion of the project would also encompass segments of I-80 and Hallock Young Road, angling eastward around Lordstown Motors and the Ultium plant. The network would then follow north along state Route 45 past the Ohio Commerce Center in Lordstown.
Other amenities would be solar-powered charging stations and potentially a high-tech train-to-truck multimodal station, should the need exist.
Jim Kinnick, Eastgate executive director, is confident projects like Ultium Cells could attract a cluster of suppliers to the region. “We’re looking to bring high-speed internet up and down Route 11,” he says. “That certainly enhances your ability to attract new companies.”
Investing in such an ambitious effort to remake this area’s logistics infrastructure is “huge,” says Tom Reda, vice president of business development at Aim Transportation Solutions’ Integrated division in Girard. “That area is already a major distribution hub. There isn’t a logistics company that I know of that hasn’t already tapped into the resources here.”
Reda says major logistics companies are using area drivers, engineers, operators and sales people. But because these companies lack a large bricks-and-mortar presence, many don’t know they operate in the region.
“These companies know the value of this area. There’s access to interstates but it’s really the people,” he says.
Any additional infrastructure investment would accelerate growth along the North Jackson-Lordstown corridor, he says, where transportation activity is unlikely to abate.
“There’s been a huge increase in e-commerce, between an 8% and 10% increase last year,” Reda says. That means more products being shipped, more deliveries, and more trucks on the road.
“All of our divisions are busy right now,” he says. Aim Integrated provides trucks, drivers and transportation management for customers across the country.
The greatest challenge for the transportation industry is a nationwide shortage of drivers, which accelerated during the pandemic.
“We’re at least 80,000 drivers short right now,” Reda says of the industry. Many schools that provided commercial driver training were closed during COVID. So about 40% fewer CDLs were awarded last year.
If anything, the pandemic exposed the flaws in just-in-time logistics. The supply chain today is marred with backorders, labor shortages and rising prices, Reda says. “There’s got to be more of a focus on near-shore suppliers and an acceptance among customers for a more realistic delivery pace.”
Still, the North Jackson-Lordstown corridor is primed for additional growth, says Shea MacMillan, director of economic development projects at the Regional Chamber.
Major projects are near completion in North Jackson, such as the expansion at Mom’s Meals, a food packaging and delivery service on Bailey Road, MacMillan says. Others are just underway, such as the $30 million transformation of the Macy’s distribution center on Mahoning Avenue into an online fulfillment center. That project is expected to create at least 417 jobs and retain 55 positions.
Lordstown’s emergence in the electric-vehicle market, anchored by Ultium and Lordstown Motors, is likely to draw additional EV industry suppliers to the region. In June, for example, Transglobal announced it would construct a new plant in Warren Township to supply doors to EVs made by General Motors and Rivian.
Last year, MacMillan says three of the 24 projects the chamber helped to spearhead were related to logistics and distribution. So far this year, two of the 10 projects completed were distribution companies.
“Because of these investments, we’re leveraging ourselves to be competitive in the EV market,” Macmillan says. Major infrastructure efforts along the Lordstown-North Jackson corridor are all part of that plan, he says, validating the importance of the Mahoning Valley’s location and access to major metropolitan markets.