Virus Slows, Doesn’t Halt, Development Activity

LORDSTOWN, Ohio — Economic development activity might not be moving forward at the pace the Mahoning Valley community might have hoped, but projects are still moving forward, even against the backdrop of the coronavirus outbreak.   

In Lordstown, General Motors closed on its purchase of the 158-acre site where it intends to begin construction as early as April on a $2.3 billion plant to manufacture batteries to drive its planned fleet of electric vehicles. 

The company awaits approval of environmental and construction permits. 

“Things continue to progress,” GM spokesman Dan Flores says in an email responding to a request for comment. “We are still focused on beginning construction once all the approvals are in place.”

Work is proceeding as well on converting GM’s former factory in Lordstown into the headquarters and plant of Lordstown Motors Corp., an electric pickup truck startup, while coping with the safety guidelines put in place in Ohio. 

According to an emailed statement from Lordstown Motors, the company’s “primary focus” is doing what it can to slow and prevent COVID-19’s spread and monitoring the situation. Staff is working at home. 

“This includes our leadership, sales and marketing teams, as well as our engineers, who continue testing and fine-tuning the technology that will power the way we work,” a spokesman says. “We are running ahead of schedule, and we do not anticipate any major production delays.”

Elsewhere in the village, work proceeds on the TJX Companies Inc.’s $170 million regional distribution center. Although a spokesman declined to comment on the status of the project, driving past the project site March 27, it was easy to see several pickup trucks, passenger cars and workers on site.  

Infrastructure work is also advancing.

The city of Youngstown plans to open bids April 17 on a major upgrade to Fifth Avenue. That project, which includes reconfiguring the road, landscaping, safety improvements and other elements, is being funded in part by a $10.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development, or Build, program. 

The Fifth Avenue project, the first of three phases of the work to be done under the Build grant, will also include roadway improvements to several adjacent streets and the implementation of an autonomous shuttle service. 

Already, work is underway on a sewer line replacement on North Phelps Street in downtown Youngstown that will convert the stretch of road into a pedestrian plaza.

The outbreak, however, is affecting other projects. 

Royal Dutch Shell reported March 18 it would pause construction at the petrochemical complex it is building in Monaca, Pa., to address health issues raised by the coronavirus outbreak.  

The decision to halt construction of the multibillion-dollar plant wasn’t made lightly but “is in the best long-term interest of our workforce, nearby townships and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” Hillary Mercer, vice president of Shell Pennsylvania Chemicals, said in an emailed statement.  

Joe DeSalvo, president of DeSalvo Construction Co. Inc. in Hubbard, reports work remains underway at the contractor’s various job sites. Those include Sweeney Chevrolet Buick GMC’s new dealership building and corporate headquarters in Boardman, Campbell’s new Community Literacy, Workforce and Cultural Center, the banquet center at the Eastwood Mall in Niles, and Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Services’ $31 million community in Liberty Township. 

“We’re stepping up all of our cleaning and safety measures that have been recommended, and we’re focusing on keeping everyone safe,” DeSalvo says. 

The behind-the-scenes work of economic development also is continuing, although at a slower pace, local professionals acknowledge. 

“We’re still receiving calls. We’re still receiving inquiries,” reports Sarah Boyarko, chief operating officer of the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber. “But there definitely has been a natural slowdown.” While the chamber is receiving and responding to inquiries, she says site tours and moving forward with decisions have slowed. 

“We’re all just trying to figure out what to do today,” says Julie Needs, executive director of the Sustainable Opportunity Development Center in Salem. 

“We can’t stop economic development. We need to be here to support our businesses, to answer questions and to be a resource to the things that our businesses are going to need over the next several months and connecting the dots for them so they are not alone and they are not coming at it blind.”  

Both Boyarko and Needs are optimistic about prospects for growth once the outbreak has subsided and normal commerce can resume. 

Boyarko foresees an increase in development-related activity “fairly quickly” once businesses reopen and everyone is cleared to return to work physically. 

“This is also an opportunity to continue to grow our economy,” Needs says. 

“This too shall pass. What do we do now to prepare ourselves for the future when things just explode again? How can we be ready for that explosion, to assist our business and expansion efforts but also to assist those businesses who might need to expand?” 

Pictured: The site of TJX Companies’ distribution center was buzzing with activity March 27 amid the virus outbreak.