Salute to Vets: Dignan Takes Command at Chamber
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Soon after he was stationed at the Youngstown Air Reserve Station in March 2013, Col. James Dignan recognized that one of his priorities would be raising community awareness of the base.
He was in line to pass through the metal detector at Youngstown City Hall, where he wanted to witness the city’s veterans treatment court in action, when the individual in front of him asked whether he was in the Army. When Dignan corrected him that he was wearing an Air Force uniform, the man asked if there was an Air Force base around here.
“I soon realized that the base wasn’t tied very closely to the community,” even though it was among the top employers in the Mahoning Valley, Dignan recalls. “I recognized then that as part of my mission, I needed to make sure the base was more closely tied to the community, that the community was aware of its assets, and what was going on at the base.”
Now retired from the Air Force Reserve, Dignan sees similarities between his command at YARS and his current role as president and CEO of the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber. Instead of speaking for a base community of a few thousand, he now represents a community of about 700,000 residents of the Mahoning and Shenango valleys.
In March 2017, he was named to succeed the chamber’s longtime president and CEO, Tom Humphries. He assumed the post Jan. 1.
Dignan, a native of southern California, says he wanted to fly airplanes since he was a little boy, but his career didn’t take a direct flight path. He pursued a degree in electronics engineering in college and worked at tech giant Intel for a time. And while he enjoyed working in the electronics field, he didn’t see himself doing that for the next 50 years.
“I decided I was going to fly airplanes and just wanted to finish my degree,” he continues. His counselor advised him that he only needed a few courses to complete a dual major in psychology and sociology.
After receiving his degree from what is now Excelsior College in Albany, N.Y., he joined the U.S. Navy.
“I knew the Navy had cool pilots and they flew on and off boats,” he jokes. “I thought that would be an interesting opportunity.”
Serving in the Navy from 1989 to 1995, Dignan switched to the Air Force Reserves after leaving active duty.
Initially he was slated to take over the 445th Airlift Wing at Wright-Paterson Air Force Base in Dayton but instead was notified that he would command the 910th at YARS.
In the late 1990s, Dignan stopped in Youngstown while on a trip and remembered the region as “pretty hard hit.” When he returned in 2012 to check out the city, “You could see change was happening downtown,” he says. “It looked like things were alive, that it was open for business and there was opportunity here.”
He and his wife, Simona, and their three daughters subsequently settled in Howland.
Dignan began meeting with elected officials and local leaders, and looked at how the base and its personnel could become more involved with the community.
“I challenged our folks to find out what assets we have on our base that could be utilized effectively and efficiently outside the gates, where we can get our training and still do things … to make sure that we’re cemented in with the community,” he says.
Among the more notable efforts was the base partnering with the city of Youngstown on a blight remediation initiative that resulted in the demolition of nearly 90 dilapidated houses and the installation of 800 street signs. Other efforts included rebuilding an outdoor staircase at a veterans park in Newton Falls, working with the Inspiring Minds educational enrichment program and entering into mutual aid agreements with local fire departments.
Through the Youngstown Air Reserve Base Community Council, Dignan met Youngstown Municipal Court Judge Robert Milich, who presided over the city’s veterans court and is secretary of the base community council.
“He hit the ground running when he came here,” says Milich, who retired last year. “He quickly made a lot of friends.”
Milich calls Dignan “an excellent commander,” who worked well with local groups and got his family involved in the community as well.
“He brought a fresh perspective because he comes from outside the area, and he is the kind of person who motivates people and leads by example,” he says.
The effort to raise the public profile of the Youngstown Air Reserve Station and engage the public and private sectors in ensuring its long-term viability got Dignan involved with the chamber. He joined the chamber’s board of directors in 2015 and was involved in forming its Eastern Ohio Military Affairs Commission, which focuses on preserving and promoting the value of the region’s military assets.
After Dignan completed his assignment at YARS, he headed to a posting at the “the five-sided puzzle palace,” also known as the Pentagon, he says.
The assignment would advance his career, but the move to Youngstown was the family’s fifth in seven years. A few months after they settled in the Mahoning Valley, his wife said they needed to try to stay here. His daughters, in fact, had informed him that wherever the Air Force sent him, they were staying here.
“For me, it was in the cards that if I stayed in the Air Force, I wasn’t going to see my family very much. So it was time to do something different,” he says. He took the Pentagon post and drove home to Howland on weekends.
Dignan considered several private-sector opportunities, the chamber among them.
“An opportunity like the chamber was very similar to what my role was at the base, working with many of the same people, being an advocate for the community. It seemed like a natural fit for me,” he says.
Doug Sweeney, president of Sweeney Chevrolet Buick GMC in Boardman and vice chairman of the chamber’s board of directors, agrees.
“He’s a proven leader,” Sweeney says. “He and his family care about our community, which was evident, and he obviously has a special degree of expertise as it relates to the airbase, which is important to the community.”
As the “talking head” for the region, Dignan sees his role as making sure the community’s voice is heard in Columbus, Harrisburg and Washington, D.C. “and that our needs are addressed so we have the best opportunity for our community that we possibly can.”
Dignan sees himself being more of a “collaborator-in-chief” and not as the decision maker at the top of a hierarchy. “I see my role as bringing everyone together and making sure we’re doing what’s in the best interest of our community,” he says.
“I firmly believe that we have all the resources we need,” he continues. “We just need some focused attention on getting them aligned to a vision and goal. It’s just a matter of bringing together the folks who are here and making sure that we can build to that common vision of what we want to be in 2050. Making sure that we can stop the descent, the current path, the vector that we’re on that makes us older and poorer and smaller,” he says.
“We’re a force to be reckoned with when we all come together,” he remarks.
Copyright 2023 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.