YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – “Voltage Valley” – the description many associate with the drive toward the development in the region of electric vehicles – is to Tim Petrey a term that has a far wider significance.
For Petrey, managing partner at HD Davis CPAs in Liberty Township, Voltage Valley represents the declaration of a new legacy being built in the Mahoning Valley, an opportunity to shape a narrative that has long been dominated by shuttered steel mills, poverty, migration, crime and high unemployment.
“We want people to understand that Voltage Valley doesn’t just represent electric vehicles,” Petrey says. “Voltage Valley represents change and being the agent of change.”
Indeed, Petrey is so passionate about the term and its usage that in 2019 he registered the trade name with the state of Ohio. Petrey has also filed articles of incorporation with the state to organize a handful of limited liability companies with variations of Voltage Valley in the name, he says.
None of the acquisitions is for profit, Petrey says. Instead, it allows the community to help to control the use of the Voltage Valley brand for positive purposes.
“The reason for acquiring that is that I want it to be used for our greater purpose as a community, and not just one company,” Petrey explains. “We just want to own that narrative. We don’t want people in Columbus, Cleveland, Pittsburgh or New York defining us. We don’t want anybody else making that narrative for us.”
While companies and projects such as Ultium Cells, Foxconn, and Lordstown Motors Corp. clearly have a stake in this transition, Voltage Valley should embrace equally the energy and spirit of business leaders in the Mahoning Valley who continue to make a difference.
“Ideally, ‘Voltage Valley’ becomes the platform in which we’re selling our community to other people,” Petrey says. In this sense, small businesses across the region benefit in the long run from any form of economic growth or residuals that result from the attraction of new talent, new companies, or young professionals who today see more opportunity in the region than ever.
To encourage this, Petrey and others are working together to establish a group of young business owners to demonstrate that it’s possible to build a career with a quality of life in the Mahoning Valley that’s rewarding and prosperous. “It’s to show that you can do it here,” he says. “There’s a tremendous amount of opportunity.”
It’s a message that supplants the “Rust Belt” image of the Mahoning Valley, which beginning in the 1980s served as a case study in deindustrialization and its impact on communities and families, Petrey says. “Rust Belt represents something that none of us want,” he says. “It identifies with something that is dead.”
More important, the term “Rust Belt” underscores an antiquated way of thinking, Petrey says. “It’s a mindset of not being willing to change and adapt. The biggest thing we push in our business ventures is being willing to adapt, change and reinvest.”
He points to enterprises such as the Youngstown Clothing Co., a business that celebrates both the nostalgia for the region and its future promise imprinted on T-shirts and sweatshirts.
Matt McClure, who owns Youngstown Clothing along with his brother, started the business with four or five shirt designs. At the time, the Mahoning Valley native was living and working in Columbus, but always wanted to return to live near family.
“We put together a website, then would do some pop-up stores in the [Southern Park] Mall during the holidays,” he says.
Petrey stepped in with his own investment, McClure says, which helped to get the business to a point where the owners could return home and commit to the business full-time. In 2019, the company opened in its current store in the mall. “Tim was involved in the business for a couple of years,” he says. “He’s still a consultant.”
The concept of establishing a network of young business owners resonates with McClure and others in the region. “It’s a great goal,” he says.
The CEO of QuickMed Urgent Care, Lena Esmail, says she wanted to combine her education in the medical field with her business acumen to provide opportunity and service to the Mahoning Valley.
“To me, that’s what real generational wealth is,” Esmail says. “The ability to pass on the things that you’ve learned over time – your education, your experience – to your whole community.”
Esmail, who was reared in Liberty Township and is a graduate of Youngstown State University, moved away for seven years before deciding to return to start her company.
“I decided the place with the most need and the place where I had the most opportunity to spread the most influence was in my own hometown,” Esmail says.
Too often, she says, young people in the Mahoning Valley become educated and then leave town. Or, those who left town to pursue higher education are likely to remain in those cities where they attended college.
Esmail says that she’s an example of how this trend can be reversed.
“I feel that I’ve not only been able to create a long-lasting foundation for success, but also to show that you can have a successful business model in the Valley,” she says. “You can be a big fish in a small sea here in the Valley. You just have to commit to the fact that you want to be here for the sake of your community.”
Esmail’s company operates eight stand-alone QuickMed Urgent Care clinics and six school-based clinics across the Mahoning Valley.
This is precisely the type of narrative the Petrey Voltage Valley initiative intends to capture, he says.
“These are the kinds of business owners we hope to start bringing together to share ideas with one another, legacy business owners, local politicians and leaders in our government,” he says.
Much of this attitude is reflected at Petrey’s firm, HD Davis CPAs. Longtime accountant Harold Davis established the company in 2007 and Petrey joined in 2009. Since then, the business has evolved into much more than an accounting service. Rather, the company acts more as a year-round financial advisory group.
The company has branched into other successful endeavors such as its business brokerage division and White Glove Payroll, a contract payroll service. HD Davis employs 50 people.
In September, HD Davis purchased, for $1.2 million, a plaza and a 30,000-square-foot office complex at 125 Churchill-Hubbard Road. The company is renovating the office building, investing another $800,000 to $900,000 in upgrades.
“I’ve always been painfully supportive of our area to the extent where I’ve had multiple offers to sell our company and move,” he says.
“I just won’t do it.”
Petrey, who grew up on the west side of Youngstown, says his reluctance to sell defies the advice of practically all of his financial advisers, who have counseled him to consider it.
“Every adviser tells me it’s not the right financial decision for me but I don’t care,” he says.
Instead, Petrey has gone all-in on the Mahoning Valley. In one of the new offices his CPA firm now occupies, a brightly painted mural on a large wall speaks to his mission: “You Can Change Youngstown.”
“There’s nothing more frustrating than hearing people talk negatively about our community,” Petrey says. “I’m here and I want to be here. I want to help control as much opportunity as I can for other people.”
Pictured: Tim Petrey stands in front of the mural painted on a wall at his new office building in Liberty Township.