Chambers, Development Groups Agree: More Virus Relief, Investment Needed

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Leaders of development organizations in the Mahoning and Shenango valleys agree that more federal stimulus is needed, both to support recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and to promote broader economic growth. 

President Joe Biden’s administration and Congress are debating the size and scope of a new COVID-19 aid package. Among the items on the table are additional funds for vaccine production and distribution, new money to assist businesses, extended and enhanced unemployment benefits, direct payments to taxpayers and potential assistance to state and local governments .

Biden’s proposal is $1.9 trillion, while the package presented Tuesday to the administration by 10 Republican senators, including Ohio’s Rob Portman, is $618 billion.

The Biden administration has also proposed investments in infrastructure to create jobs, encourage economic growth and promote innovation. 

“There is probably another round of stimulus that’s needed to get us all the way through the end of the pandemic and to the point that we can more robustly reopen all the economy,” said Guy Coviello, incoming president and CEO of the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber and current president of the Regional Chamber Foundation. 

Coviello said he is pleased there is another round of Paycheck Protection Program loans, open through the end of March. 

“I’m glad that they broadened the eligibility for this current round, so that will be helpful,” he said.  

In addition, “some form of direct payment to individuals” would help stimulate the economy, he said. He urged caution on how unemployment benefits are approached so as not to provide a disincentive for people to return to work and because of the possibility of increased fraud.   

The more effective forms of earlier COVID relief were those that went directly to individuals and businesses, said Rod Wilt, executive director of Penn-Northwest Development Corp.   

“Any of this aid that doesn’t have to go through the morass of red tape of all the levels of government is going to be effective,” Wilt said. 

Businesses in this round of PPP are applying for and receiving funds within three weeks, “which is spectacular,” he said. “Difficult and clunky” application processes only make such aid more difficult to get out into the community, particularly the small businesses that really need the help. 

“It is the smaller businesses that seem to be hurting the most,” said Penny Traina, CEO and executive director of the Columbiana County Port Authority. 

That’s a reality recognized by Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, she said. 

Earlier this week, DeWine unveiled a two-year executive budget that contains $460 million to support Ohio businesses affected by the pandemic. Provisions of the Investing in Ohio Initiative include $150 million in grants for Small Business Relief Grant applicants who previously applied and an additional $20 million in grants to businesses that did not previously qualify for funding. 

The initiative also provides grant funds for bars and restaurants, lodging industry businesses and indoor entertainment venues.    

While most businesses still face difficult challenges, restaurants, hotels and entertainment venues are among those that have been particularly hard hit, Coviello said. 

“While the majority of businesses are continuing to struggle, those industries in particular really need ongoing assistance,” he continued. 

“Between the Grove City Outlets and our hotels and restaurants, they’re really suffering under the mandates,” Wilt said of his area. 

Traina, Coviello and Alex McCoy, CEO of the Lawrence County Regional Chamber of Commerce in New Castle, Pa., all expressed support for infrastructure investment.

Infrastructure is always “first and foremost” to promote a county and support the inflow of people into it, Traina said. 

“With any major downturn, one of the ways to pump money back into the economy and create long-term viability is through infrastructure,” Coviello said. “It creates jobs immediately and it allows the buildout of infrastructure needed for long-term growth.”

McCoy agreed on the need for infrastructure spending. 

“I don’t know if President Biden will need some 1930s-style Public Works Administration effort to get America back to full employment following the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, but all infrastructure is important,” he said. 

While McCoy said the initiatives launched under the Public Works Administration alone didn’t pull the United States out of the Great Depression, those strategic investments bolstered U.S. production capacity and revolutionized many rural communities, with an impact lasting decades. Among the projects spearheaded by the federal agency, which existed from 1933 to 1944, were New York City’s Lincoln Tunnel, the Hoover Dam and, locally, the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport. 

What’s needed today isn’t necessarily transportation infrastructure, McCoy said, but the foundation for modern technologies.

“Modern infrastructure is a big deal. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it should be that our rural and mid-tier communities have totally inadequate broadband capacity,” he said. “The internet today is so integral to most people’s lives. The digital divide has to be closed.”

In addition to broadband investment, McCoy called for more skills training opportunities. Society needs people in the skilled trades as much as it does those in the STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – fields. 

“We’ve just got to continue to pump money” into job training, Wilt said. Providing incentives to companies that hire new employees through the West Central Job Partnership in Mercer and Lawrence counties in Pennsylvania is among “the most effective” hiring programs he has seen for a long time, he said. 

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.