Chamber, Eastgate Seek to Repopulate Valley to Meet Workforce Needs

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber wants to reach out to refugees from global hot spots such as Ukraine as part of an initiative to repopulate the Mahoning Valley to meet projected workforce needs.

Guy Coviello, president and CEO of the Regional Chamber, said he hopes to roll out the program in the next few months, though he acknowledged it likely will be constructed as it goes.

“We are projecting new job creation to be at a sustained level that is far greater than our historic annual growth,” Coviello said. “And in order to meet the needs of our employers, we are going to have to as a community repopulate. We have to grow the population.”

The projected shortfalls are “all across the board – every industry, every level of employee,” he added.

The chamber and Eastgate Regional Council of Governments are collaborating on securing a planning grant of approximately $1 million to support developing a repopulation strategy focusing on communities along the Mahoning River corridor. The funds would come from $500 million designated for Ohio’s Appalachia communities, said Jim Kinnick, Eastgate’s executive director.

Youngstown – the Mahoning Valley’s largest city – alone went from a population of more than 160,000 in the 1960s to around 60,000 now, Kinnick said. 

“We work hand in hand with the chamber daily,” he said. “They’re telling us the jobs are coming. They’re telling us the level of jobs that are coming, and we’re working on trying to make those workers available for those companies.”

According to Coviello, the effort being planned is a multifaceted one that will involve marketing within the community to encourage people to remain here rather than move away; external marketing to get more people to move here, particularly former residents who would be encouraged to return; seeking workers through the H-1B visa program; and refugee relocation from global hot spots like Ukraine.

Kinnick described it as a “three Rs strategy” – retaining existing talent, returning homegrown talent to the region and receiving immigrants and refugees.

“Ukraine could be one of those hotspots that provide an opportunity,” Coviello said. Had such an initiative been in place at the time, refugees might have been sought from Afghanistan following the departure of U.S. and NATO forces in 2021.

More than 221,000 Ukrainians have sought refuge in the United States since March 2022, President Joe Biden said during a Dec. 21 news conference with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

“Looking ahead, hot spots pop up all over the world at different times for different reasons, so we just want to have an overall refugee relocation program in place,” Coviello said.

“We’re going to ask for planning money to bring on somebody that’s qualified to assist this region with the repopulation strategy,” Kinnick said.

“We need a boots-on-the-ground person to coordinate the effort, and we need to have an adequate amount of reliable research and data so that we know how to be successful,” Coviello said. “A good example of that is if we’re talking about external marketing that can bring people here. I don’t think we yet have an adequate understanding of the type of people our employers really need. And I don’t think we have a really good grasp of what those people then want in a community.”

Once that is determined, research is needed on what those people want and need, and if “there are things we don’t have that we need to create” or simply need to market the area’s existing assets, he continued.

Any marketing discussion will have to include quality of life amenities such as the Mahoning River, the downtown amphitheater and Mill Creek Park, along with the comparatively low cost of living, Kinnick said.

“There’s a lot of work to do,” Coviello said. 

An objective would be to create an “office of repopulation in the region” that would have staff that includes a cultural liaison who would understand what immigrants would need and would advise on “how we can help them fit in to our region,” Kinnick said.  

According to Kinnick, a decision should be forthcoming Feb. 6 regarding the planning grant. Separately, Eastgate also is working on hiring a consultant to perform a housing assessment for the region. “We hope to have that underway here in the next couple of weeks,” he said.  

“I believe this will all fall into place early February, and we can be aggressive with building out this framework,” Kinnick said.

“My preference would be to have it formalized and moving forward within a month,” Coviello agreed. “It’s more likely a six-month or so process to get things up and running, although we might need to be up and running before we can start gathering the research and data. That might be part of the operations and not a precedent of operations.”

The two development officials also are looking at what other Ohio communities have done, and pointed to Cleveland and Akron as having successful immigration and refugee programs.

“I don’t want to reinvent any process. I want to find what’s successful and duplicate it,” Coviello said.

Once the planning is done, the partners are looking at applying for Appalachia funds to execute those plans, with investments focusing on revitalizing the downtowns of the communities along the river corridor, including by making them more walkable and by linking them to the river, Kinnick said. 

“We believe that we could be asking for up to $75 million in this grant for the projects,” he said.

While Coviello acknowledged funds will be needed to execute the plans, he said the initiative now is more focused on increasing the number of key stakeholders who are interested in making it a community priority.

“It takes take some resources because it’s going to take a person to coordinate the effort, and that effort will probably grow over time as we find out what it’s going to take to attract people here,” he said.

The initiative’s proponents would go to the local communities and school systems, as well as potentially to home builders, apartment complex operators and even zoning officials to explore potential changes based on what the research tells them new residents might want, he said.

“We might have laws in place to accommodate what I wanted 30 years ago and not what the current workers want today,” he said.

Kinnick said he’s optimistic about prospects for getting grant funds for what is being considered.

“We’ve talked to the Governor’s Office of Appalachia already, and they’re very impressed with where we’re going with this,” he remarked.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.