Eastgate Regional Council of Governments Celebrates 50 Years

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Jim Kinnick, executive director of Eastgate Regional Council of Governments, isn’t shy about his love of orange barrels.

These barrels represent critical infrastructure projects that are underway across the region, many of which his agency helped plan and implement.

But even Kinnick has his limits, he joked. “My love for orange barrels is being tested right now in downtown Youngstown,” he said to laughter, referring to the street closures and work in progress in the heart of the central business district.

Otherwise, “It’s looking great and it’s getting close to the end. So we’re excited about that,” he said.

The $27.6 million downtown Youngstown project – dubbed the Smart2 initiative that started more than two years ago – is just one of hundreds that the organization has helped shepherd through to completion over the past half century. 

Eastgate marked 50 years of service to the Mahoning Valley on Wednesday, along with approximately 150 business, government and community leaders who attended the development agency’s annual meeting.

The event also featured Oh Wow! Executive Director Marvin Logan, who shared his perspectives as a community leader who grew up in the Mahoning Valley, before leaving and then returning. 

Also, Matthew Chang, CEO of Chang Industrial, provided insights related to his work in automation and robotics and how these might apply to work underway in the Mahoning Valley.

A panel discussion that followed Chang’s remarks included Ellen Heinz, economic development representative for the U.S. Economic Development Administration; Mark Winchell, executive director at Ashtabula County Port Authority; and Julie Green, director of the Trumbull County Planning Commission.

It’s the first annual meeting in four years, Kinnick said, as the previous meetings were disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Kinnick said that more than $113 million in infrastructure and transportation projects has been committed to this area just this year, much of it financed through the Ohio Department of Transportation.  

These include improvements at the state Routes 42 and 82 interchange, a road widening project along Western Reserve Road, rehabilitation of Interstate 80, safety upgrades along U.S. Route 224 and improvements to Bailey Road and Mahoning Avenue in North Jackson. 

The planning and development organization has also secured more than $11 million in grants from the U.S. Economic Development Administration and more than $1.2 million from the Appalachian Regional Commission that target planning and development projects in the region.

“We appreciate the strong support,” he said. “It shows that the investments we’re making in the area are good investments because you have the support from not only the state legislature but the federal government too.”

Kinnick, who joined Eastgate seven years ago, said among his favorite ongoing projects is the removal of the dams along the Mahoning River. When he arrived, the consensus was that it would take nine years and $90 million to remove the dams and clean the river. Few thought it could be accomplished.

Yet today, two dams – Lowellville and Struthers – are out, Kinnick reported.  Four are slated for removal this year, two additional dams are targeted for removal in 2024 and the final dam in Girard should be removed in 2025. The price tag to remove all of these is $30 million.

Removing these dams is essential to cleaning the river, Kinnick said.  Toxic deposits from steel mills that once lined the banks of the Mahoning were for decades trapped behind these dams. Once the toxins are abated and the dams removed, it returns the river to its free-flowing state.

“Quality of life is vital to revitalization,” Kinnick said.

Other initiatives on the table include an effort between communities to streamline a process that could deliver utilities for major projects, Kinnick said.

The Power initiative is intended to bring municipalities and suppliers together and urge cooperation and establish mutual agreements to provide necessary utility services for new development projects, he said. “We have to work together, share the resources,” he said.

Eventually, the initiative could lead to the formation of a regional authority.

Another major effort is the Logistics Innovation and Vehicle Electrification – or Live – Zone, Kinnick said. The plan calls for the creation of a Smart corridor that extends along Bailey Road from Jackson Township in Mahoning County and into Lordstown in Trumbull County.

The Trumbull County portion would encompass Foxconn’s manufacturing plant and Ultium Cells’ $2.3 billion battery-cell factory in Lordstown.

Attributes of this Live Zone could in the future include autonomous warehousing and distribution, an automated transfer yard and rail intermodal facility, electric-vehicle and truck charging – including in-road inductive charging – through solar power and new fiber installations, Kinnick said.

Matthew Chang of Chang Industrial speaks during Wednesday’s meeting.

Chang, who has worked with and helped develop some of the largest autonomous vehicle and robotics operations in the world, said the Mahoning Valley has the assets in place to bring this project to fruition.

“The Mahoning Valley is a blank slate,” he said. “You have excellent logistics, excellent demographics. You have plenty of available land. You have the intellectual capital with Youngstown State as a major university partner, and you also have a business coalition that is ready, willing and able.”

Last year, the Live Zone project applied for a federal Raise Grant of $24.4 million but was denied. However, Kinnick said Eastgate and its partners will submit a new proposal seeking federal funds.

“I feel really good that we’re going to attract funding in the next round,” he said.

Kinnick said planners are also looking at developing a feasibility study – perhaps several years from now – of a new interchange at Interstate 80 and state Route 304, which could open up access to U.S. Route 62. That route feeds directly into the East Side of Youngstown, which has ample land for development, he said.

“It provides access to an area of the city that is clearly disconnected from the highway system,” Kinnick said. “There’s vacant land. There’s opportunity for housing. There’s opportunity we have to take advantage of.”

Critical to all of these projects and others are public-private partnerships, Kinnick said. 

Eastgate, a voluntary association of county, municipal, township and village governments across Mahoning, Trumbull, Columbiana and Ashtabula counties, has established long-standing partnerships with groups such as the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber and other development and community agencies.

These are needed to strengthen initiatives such as developing urban areas through the region’s River of Opportunity effort, an Ohio River-to-Lake Erie logistics corridor and repopulation strategies for the Mahoning Valley.

“None of this is possible if we don’t work together toward regional prosperity,” Kinnick said.

 Pictured at top: Jim Kinnick, executive director of Eastgate Regional Council of Governments.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.