Developers Prefer ‘Shovel-Ready’ Sites with Credentials

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The Mahoning Valley boasts a healthy stock of land for industrial purposes, some of it brownfields abandoned in the wake of the retrenchment of the steel industry and manufacturing base in the 1970s and ’80s.

Few of these sites are “shovel-ready” plots – sites free of just about every encumbrance that one can think of – certified by the state of Ohio.

Having an industrial site certified by the state is an advantageous credential when it comes to marketing such a property to developers or land agents in search of opportunities for their clients. In many cases, landowners don’t know what it takes to achieve certification, such as identifying the many upgrades or improvements needed to obtain the designation.

To help with this, the Youngstown Warren Regional Chamber has submitted 40 sites in Mahoning and Trumbull counties to JobsOhio and its new SiteOhio program as part of a statewide effort to bring many of Ohio’s industrial land to shovel-ready specifications.

The goal is to submit these sites for an objective test to determine their status and what’s needed to qualify such parcels for certification.

“State certification is the end-all, be-all of shovel-ready sites,” says Sarah Boyarko, chamber senior vice president for economic development. JobsOhio has partnered with InSite Consulting of South Carolina, which manages the process of analyzing each parcel.

“The state has created a certification program that will enable us to market these sites at a much greater level,” Boyarko explains.

The chamber’s list is considerably longer than any other submitted from northeastern Ohio, she says. The objective is to have the state select those sites across Ohio that meet requirements for certification, designate them as such, and come up with a handful of lots that can be marketed to boost business attraction. Those that don’t qualify would be provided with a list of criteria that need to be addressed so they meet certification standards.

“My guess is that none of the sites we provided will be certified,” Boyarko says, noting that there are probably very few sites in Ohio that would immediately qualify. However, the process allows great insight as to what property owners must do to attain certification. Some might need minor improvements, others much more investment and upgrades, she says.

Chamber staff worked for weeks compiling data on each site, Boyarko says. To qualify for consideration, a site must be at least 30 acres, contain industrial access such as a roadway leading to it, and zoned appropriately.

Moreover, the application included an 11-page document with 290 line items that contained “anything and everything you would ask about a site, including community details,” she notes.

Commenting on this information, such as available incentives packages, questions about utilities, rail access, wetlands, the number of wells at the site, transportation, maps, and topography, Boyarko says, “We spent weeks doing this.”

Once the parcels are assessed, Boyarko expects to first receive responses on those sites that require the least work to achieve certification.

“The first step might be to identify the first 10 sites or five sites that are closest to being certified,” she says, “along with recommendations on things that need to be addressed. Then, they’ll give us the 30 or so others that say they aren’t certified for these reasons,” she says.

In all, Boyarko says, the chamber markets 107 vacant parcels and 145 commercial and industrial buildings, most of them privately owned. “Right now, we’re managing $1.5 billion worth of projects, $800 million of which is the Lordstown Energy project,” she says. “2015 was a year of due diligence, fact-finding and a lot of behind-the-scenes work.”

The Mahoning Valley remains home to several sites certified by the state, one a 70-acre plot at the Castlo Industrial Park in Struthers.

“We’re working with several prospects right now regarding new construction at the site,” reports Mike Hoza, executive director of Castlo Community Improvement Corp., which owns and operates the business park.

Obtaining state certification as shovel-ready requires a major commitment from the landowner. “It took us three years to make all of the improvements and a considerable amount of money – about $5 million,” Hoza says. These improvements involved rail and roadway upgrades, rebuilding the lift station, installing new waterlines and soil remediation.

“There were a lot of things to do,” he says. “It was time-consuming and very detailed.”

The site was officially certified in August of 2014 and Castlo received a covenant it wouldn’t be sued last July.

“That was the final part,” he says. “We are certified and shovel-ready. That’s what consultants and developers want to hear.”

One consultant to whom he recently spoke was searching for a brownfield site in Mahoning and Trumbull counties. Asked how his search was going, the consultant noted that very few brownfields in the area suited his needs.

“He would only tell me that his client was in international manufacturing,” Hoza recalls, and suggested he consider Castlo’s site. “We hope to meet with him soon.”

Quality properties must be matched with a comprehensive marketing program, observes Randy Seitz, CEO of Penn-Northwest Development Corp., the agency that spearheads economic development in Mercer County, Pa.

“We’ve been blessed,” Seitz says. “We have a very aggressive marketing program that last year generated 767 leads, 70 follow-up proposals, 14 site visits, and four companies that invested.”

Halfway through this fiscal year, Seitz says, his agency has attracted more leads and site visits than during the same period the previous year. Recently, Penn-Northwest received word from a company based in Turkey that it had looked at a “sizeable facility in Mercer County,” he says. “We were told that our site was their No. 1 choice in the U.S.”

The agency is also working with a company from the United Kingdom that produces building material from recycled glass, as well as a food processor that has expressed interest in building a 500,000-square-foot plant in Hermitage.

“Once we get a lead, we check out the company,” Seitz says. “Once we qualify them, we go through an extensive process to figure out their needs and within 48 hours we have a proposal in their hands.”

As it stands, Mercer County has a large inventory of available commercial and industrial land, Seitz says. At Stateline Industrial Park in Hermitage, the Moroco Family Trust has 150 acres that lie within a Keystone Opportunity Zone, or KOZ. These incentives abate property taxes until 2020.

Penn-Northwest markets another 17 acres just north of Interstate 80, while industrial property such as the former Westinghouse plant in Sharon has another 800,000 square feet available for lease. Ellwood Group has invested $80 million in portions of that plant to forge steel in the manufacture crankshafts used in diesel engines for ships.

Other former Westinghouse properties are under development by the Winner family, Seitz says.

“They’re doing a fantastic job,” the Penn-Northwest CEO says. One of the newest tenants to the office park is a manufacturer called Blissed Out Design, a small company that started at the eCentre at LindenPointe in Hermitage but has expanded. “They do unique printing there,” Seitz says, “and it’s nice to hear stories when they succeed. The Westinghouse site is a great example.”

In Grove City, the Cooper Commons development has seven acres to build on and two industrial buildings available for lease, Seitz notes.

Other opportunities include some 500 acres in Greenville-Reynolds Industrial Park, which has about 60,000 square feet of industrial building space available for lease. And, in Greenville, about 150 acres is open for building near Ilsco, the former Werner manufacturing complex.

Having such an inventory is critical to attracting new business to the region. “The more companies I can get in the funnel and bring them to the table,” Seitz says, “the more we can get to invest here.”

Pictured: An aerial view of the Castlo Industrial Park in Struthers, one of the “shovel-ready” sites in the Mahoning Valley. The Youngstown Warren Regional Chamber has submitted 40 sites to the state for the designation.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.