Voltage Valley Trucking Industry Anticipates Big Jolt

YOUNGSTOWN – In the shadow of billions of dollars of investments at Ultium Cells LLC and hundreds of millions planned at Lordstown Motors Corp. is a $7 million project that has positioned itself in the heart of what could become one of the most sophisticated transportation hubs in the country.

Old Dominion Freight Line is nearing completion of its new terminal along Tod Avenue in Lordstown, just south of where Ultium is building its $2.3 billion electrical vehicle battery manufacturing plant and east of where Lordstown Motors is preparing the launch of its all-electric pickup, the Endurance, later this year.

The truck terminal, strategically placed to be part of the EV supply chain, gives credence to economic development and business leaders promoting this region as “Voltage Valley.” Old Dominion’s  30,422-square-foot building sits on 15 acres. In return for a 40% property tax abatement over 10 years, the company promised to create 20 full-time jobs and relocate its 48-person workforce from its terminal in Girard.

While Dominion’s $7 million investment is tiny compared to Lordstown Motors and Ultium’s investments, coupled with the soon-to-open TJX HomeGoods distribution center in Lordstown and the potential expansion of Macy’s distribution hub in North Jackson, it illustrates the tremendous potential for local businesses on the supply chain.

“They will bring a lot of transportation traffic,” says John Cerni, president of Cerni Motors, a tractor and trailer truck dealership in Austintown. “We’re going to need more trucks, drivers and trailers to haul materials into those plants. It’s going to grow our business.”

Cerni understands that once plants such as Ultium and Lordstown Motors take hold, it will create a cluster effect that will draw suppliers to the region.  “There’s a lot of business around those plants. It’s a great thing,” he says.

Moreover, he’s excited about the eventual transition to electrical trucks in general and that the Mahoning Valley is squarely in the heart of this emerging industry.

“We know we’re going to start selling electrical trucks,” Cerni says.  

The dealership holds the franchise for the International truck brand, selling mostly over-the-road haulers.  International, like many of the other brands, has partnered with other manufacturers to bring an all-electric heavy-duty truck to market. 

Last year, for example, electric-vehicle manufacturer Navistar unveiled a prototype of its battery-electric drive version of its International MV medium-duty truck.

“They’re all experimental,” Cerni says. “Right now, everything is in test mode.”

At the moment, Cerni says there are likely 10 or 12 manufacturers trying to figure out how to improve the charge duration on these electric vehicles.  He also projects that autonomous truck hauling is a technology that will be deployed in the near future.  

Autonomous trucks have been tested through “platooning,” that is, a convoy of driverless trucks headed by a lead tractor and trailer that seats an emergency driver inside the cab.  The trucks are equipped with wireless connectivity technology that governs speed and operations.  These convoys operate along a Smart highway system that is equipped with embedded sensors and fiber optics to accommodate wireless communications.

This technology is especially inviting to the trucking industry because of the shortage of qualified drivers.

“It’ll be here,” Cerni says. “We can’t get enough drivers.”

The potential for the Lordstown area as a future logistics technology hub is evidenced with new development aside from Ultium and Lordstown Motors. The 1.2 million square-foot TJX distribution center, for example, will be fully operational later this year, says Jim Kinnick, executive director of Eastgate Regional Council of Governments.

“We want to make sure we have the roadway infrastructure to accommodate the businesses there and future businesses,” Kinnick says.

This entails the development of Smart technology and applying it to the highway and thoroughfare infrastructure in and around the Lordstown Motors site and Ultium Cells, Kinnick says.  

In January, Eastgate submitted an application for a $400,000 Ohio Department of Transportation planning and research grant to develop a comprehensive strategy for the area.

The agency would match the grant with another $100,000, Kinnick says. Should the submission be successful, it would allow the project to bring on experienced consultants and engineers who could develop a plan for the Lordstown-North Jackson region.

“This will help us develop a strategy when it comes to logistics and autonomous vehicles,” Kinnick says.

A strong plan would also better position the community to land a federal Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development, or BUILD, grant to support the project, Kinnick notes.  Such a grant could provide millions of dollars to revamp the Lordstown-North Jackson hub. 

The idea is to start with the Lordstown corridor and then expand this infrastructure to other parts of Trumbull County – around the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport, for example – and Mahoning County, he says.

“That’s the vision,” Kinnick says. “To attract industry, the supply chain and other warehouses and develop a futuristic hub that can move freight in and out of the area.”

Others hope that the development will at least partially fill the void left by General Motors when the automaker closed its Lordstown assembly plant two years ago, eliminating more than 1,500 jobs.  

Eight months after the shutdown, Lordstown Motors purchased the plant with the intention of building all-electric vehicles.  The company has said it could employ as many as 1,500 once the plant is in full production of the Endurance.

Ultium – a joint venture between GM and Korea-based LG Energy Solution – has said it plans to employ more than 1,100 when its plant is in full production.  

At the same time, TJX has said it could employ more than 1,000 people at its site.

“We did a considerable amount of business with GM,” says Carl Stitzel, president of DEL Lift Rentals & Sales in Boardman.  The company leases and sells equipment such as forklifts, scissor lifts, boom lifts and pallet movers.  “There was an absolute impact.”

Stitzel says it’s too early to gauge how Lordstown Motors’ operation will affect his business, since much of the company’s customers were those who supplied the assembly plant with components or those who performed maintenance at the facility.

“I hope it turns out great,” he says.  “I don’t think it will be as big as GM, but we’re hoping for some effect.” 

Stitzel says his company has witnessed an increase in business as a result of construction activity at Ultium’s $2.3 billion plant along Tod Avenue.  The plant is scheduled to start production of early-phase battery cells by the beginning of next year and full production by the middle of 2022.

“We’ve seen some impact as the facility is being built,” Stitzel says.  “A lot of our clients are contractors that we rent equipment to.”  

Over the last several months, DEL has been busy with orders from out-of-town contractors that require aerial lifts for their work.  

“I know some of them are doing work out there,” he says.

Officials have estimated it will take about 1,000 tradesmen to build the sprawling, three million-square-foot-plant.  

“We don’t play a direct role, but there’s always been a trickle-down effect,” Stitzel says. “We’d love to do business with any direct supplier that is located here.”

Clint Moore, president of TSI Western Star in North Jackson, has experienced a similar jump in business since work started on the Ultium plant. “I guess there’s an indirect effect,” he says.

The company sells Western Star brand dump trucks and vocational vehicles used mainly in the construction industry. “Some of our customers right now are getting a lot of business,” Moore says. “We’ve definitely seen some boost.”

Pictured: Old Dominion Freight Line is nearing completion of its new terminal along Tod Avenue in Lordstown, just east of where Lordstown Motors is preparing the launch of its all-electric pickup, the Endurance, later this year.