Editorial: FirstEnergy Needs to Do Better for Downtown Youngstown

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – If FirstEnergy wants to show its commitment to its customers in the wake of House Bill 6 scandal, it could hardly do a worse job than it is doing in Youngstown.

This is perhaps best exemplified by the utility’s proposal to extend a 138-kilovolt transmission line along the Mahoning River. The transmission line connecting the Riverbend and Lincoln Park substations would enhance reliability downtown – which particularly has been plagued by planned and unplanned outages of late – and the surrounding area, according to FirstEnergy spokeswoman Brittany Al Dawood. It also would support the existing distribution network that serves thousands of residential customers as well as institutions such as Youngstown State University and St. Elizabeth Youngstown Hospital.

But at what cost to downtown redevelopment?

FirstEnergy’s preferred placement for the line cuts across property occupied by the Youngstown Foundation Amphitheatre, Wean Park and the Covelli Centre.

A draft objection letter to the Ohio Power Siting board circulated among downtown stakeholders points out the $59 million-plus invested in these riverfront assets and how the transmission line would disrupt the park-like aesthetic the city is working to create and potentially audio systems employed at the arena and amphitheater.

City officials agree with the stakeholders and raise the possibility that the towers and power lines may inhibit its ability to bring in equipment to make repairs to the amphitheater.

FirstEnergy says it considered 49 routes. The two it presented to the Ohio Power Siting Board – which has not yet rendered a decision – were “preferred for minimizing impact on the environment and developed areas while helping enhance reliability for downtown and the surrounding wards,” its spokeswoman says.

First Energy expects no radio or television interference from the lines, she adds, and the poles would be placed as close to the tree line and railroad tracks as possible to reduce the impact on the amphitheater.

Stringing the power towers and lines along the riverfront might have been a good idea when nothing but industrial sites lined that property. But today, with an arena, amphitheater and park lining those banks and further recreational development being considered as dams are removed along the river, the plan is ill advised.

Mind you, no one is more annoyed than property owners and commercial and residential tenants about the power outages that have occurred downtown in recent years. For example, FirstEnergy scheduled a “planned” power outage Monday Jan. 24 – a workday for most downtown businesses.

Many downtown FirstEnergy customers were given notice of less than an hour before the power was shut off at 1:30 p.m.

According to First Energy, the outage was necessary to address an issue within the underground network that disrupted service to 80 downtown customers the night of Jan. 23, a Sunday. While service had been restored to most of the affected customers by the next morning, 20 customers remained without power. The planned outage was needed to make the repairs so their power could be restored, the utility said.

The short notice of the planned shutdown caught some tenants of 20 Federal Place – including the Mahoning County Land Bank – unawares. That would include the person who had to be rescued from 20 Federal’s elevator by personnel from the Youngstown Fire Department.

Last December, FirstEnergy also scheduled a weekday outage lasting from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Ohio Works Drive, shutting down several manufacturers that are pressed to meet the demands of their customers amid supply chain. Maybe next time FirstEnergy can schedule a planned outage in Boardman the week before Christmas.

This all comes as FirstEnergy continues to face fallout from its role in moving House Bill 6 though the state Legislature. The utility reportedly funded a $60 million bribery scheme to win passage in 2019 of a bailout for two nuclear plants operated by a subsidiary.

Most recently, federal regulators disclosed that the troubled utility improperly billed customers $1.5 million for a portion of the lobbying costs related to efforts to get Ohio lawmakers to pass HB6.

All of this is a very bad look for FirstEnergy.

The utility should come up with a plan that is less disruptive to downtown riverbank development, do a better job of scheduling “planned” power outages and respect that business conducts business during regular business hours.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.