Region’s Largest Projects Are ‘New Ballgame’ for Workforce Development

BOARDMAN, Ohio — Ron Emery cannot recall in his 63 years a better time to call northeastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania home. 

“This is really an exciting time to live in this part of the world.” said Emery, chairman of the Youngstown chapter of Score.

Emery offered his comments during a virtual discussion Wednesday with regional economic development officials and students from area colleges and universities. Emery moderated the conversation between the officials, who discussed development in their areas and shared a plethora of opportunities and possibilities.

Sarah Boyarko, chief operating officer of the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber, discussed the chamber’s services of retention, expansion and attraction as the lead economic development entity and the county administrator for Jobs Ohio.

“The easiest way to think about it is we were on jobs from start to finish,” Boyarko said.

She said in 2020 the chamber was able to manage or support 22 projects that are either growing locally or coming to the area with a new project. The chamber’s efforts last year resulted in more than $2.8 billion in investment in the area, creating more than 3,000 jobs in the next three years.

“It’s been a little more active than normal when it comes to the larger dollar amounts of investment for us,” Boyarko said. “Normally it would be seven to 10 years we’d see an investment of these sizes. We’re certainly excited about that.”

She added that local educational institutions and peer educators in the area are focused on producing a capable workforce for these incoming companies.

Boyarko said Ultium Cells LLC, a joint venture between General Motors and LG Chem, making battery cells for electric vehicles, is looking to hire more than 1,100 at its plant now under construction in Lordstown. The total investment for the facility, as well as the machinery and equipment, is estimated to be $2.3 billion.

“Our significant amount of this investment came from this facility,” she said.

Boyarko touched on a number of other projects in the region, including Lordstown Motors Corp., which enjoyed a surge in its stock price when President Joe Biden announced Monday his intention to have the entire federal fleet of vehicles be electric powered. Economic development officials in the Mahoning Valley are “keeping our fingers crossed” that Lordstown Motors secures a contract to produce next-generation delivery vehicles for the United States Postal Service, which could generate $800 million in potential revenue for the company.

Major investments into projects like Lordstown Motors and Ultium have been essential for building the region into “Voltage Valley,” particularly after the Mahoning Valley “took a big hit in the stomach when [General Motors Co.] moved out,” Emery noted 

“It’s a testament to the chamber and the Valley itself with some huge investments to offset that,” Emery said. 

Boyarko touched on other projects including Penguin City Brewing taking over the former Republic Warehouse and converting it into a full-scale brewery, tap house and event center “This is a major part of the downtown Youngstown revitalization,” she said.

Western Reserve Transit Authority looking to expand bus routes into Trumbull County’s North Jackson and Lordstown areas is also part of economic development, she says. The chamber has supported the proposed expansion, which Boyarko said would make it easier for workers to commute to these employers, as well as the forthcoming TJX HomeGoods distribution center, she added. 

While employees do carpool, she said, the bus routes would provide an alternative, reliable mode of transportation.

“It’s a vitally important part of the success of any of the businesses in our market,” she said. “Something happens to that car or the driver gets sick that day, then no one in the car is getting to work.”

A $38 million investment by M&M Industries to add a rail spur at the former Magna Seating plant will help create 106 jobs, she noted.

Greg Myers, executive director of Growth Partnership for Ashtabula County, talked about Grand River Rubber & Plastics Co. in Ashtabula, which makes the gaskets that go into a lot of the plastic pail industry. That trickles down to M&M Industries, he said. 

“There’s a lot of interplay and synergy between projects that go on within the region,” Myers said.

For 2021, Boyarko said the chamber is managing 21 projects with $1.6 billion of pending investment that could ultimately result in more than 4,000 jobs. 

Diane Lynn Richardson, assistant director of the Lawrence County Economic Development Corp., discussed LCEDC completing the Millennium Park multi-tenant facility with a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission. Currently, the building is fully leased to Steelite International.

A $60 million plant expansion at Ellwood Group will house a steel re-melt operation for high alloy steels for the aerospace and defense industries, and a $200,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Brownfields Assessment program was used to assess the contamination issues at the former Shenango China plant to help facilitate its redevelopment, Richardson said.

Other projects include a nearly completed $6 million training facility for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local Union 712 in the Neshannock Business Park and a $1.5 million Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program that funded part of the training facility as well as a redevelopment project to create a business incubator in the city of New Castle. 

Sean Davis, a junior at Westminster College on the virtual meeting, asked about internship opportunities. Richardson provided her number and told Davis to call her office.

In Ashtabula County, recent projects include building 28 miles of new natural gas pipeline for the Riseberg Natural Gas Pipeline, a $60 million investment that brings a new supply of natural gas to the county for residential and commercial customers, Myers reported. 

The area is also attracting Petmin USA and will soon be home to the first facility in North America to produce nodular pig iron, a niche commodity currently imported by foundries in the U.S. metal casting sector. The some $500 million investment at Pinney Dock will create more than 120 new jobs, he said.

With those projects and others, including the Spire Institute/Academy and Hearthside Grove, there is tremendous opportunity for students like Davis to find jobs in manufacturing, construction, or logistics and “to help them move into career opportunities in some of those higher-playing sectors,” Myers said.

The emergence of Voltage Valley and other things around northeastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania have made the area very attractive for so many companies, Emery said. Citing the efforts of The Business Journal and its Brain Gain initiative to promote workforce development and a culture of entrepreneurship in the region, the latest economic development investments throughout the area will help keep more graduates from institutions like Westminster and Youngstown State University working good paying, local jobs.

“I think it’s a new ballgame,” Emery said. “It’s so much easier to find an engineering job today than it was five years ago.”