Expert: ‘Whole Community Effort’ Needed to Repopulate Valley

NILES, Ohio – Efforts to repopulate the Mahoning Valley via immigration will require a communitywide approach, an immigration expert said Thursday morning.

Lee Williams, chief program officer for Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, participated in a keynote panel discussion on repopulation efforts at the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber’s annual Salute to Business Breakfast.

“There has to be a whole of community effort,” Williams said. “The only way that resettlement is successful is if the entire community is engaged.”

The Regional Chamber, with Eastgate Regional Council of Governments and other partners, is pursuing a multipronged repopulation strategy to meet projected workforce needs in the region. Local officials have projected that as many as 5,000 new jobs could be available in the region by 2026, and a possible 20,000 jobs by 2030.

This projected job growth comes as Valley communities continue to shed population. Over the past 50 years, the metropolitan statistical area anchored by Youngstown has lost an average of seven people per day, panelist Lisa Long, financial resource development director for the Youngstown Area Jewish Federation, said. 

“The city of Youngstown was built to handle a population of 200,000 within city limits. Today we have under 65,000 people,” she said. The city of Warren has a similar story, with a population of about 40,000 people now, 30,000 fewer than its historical peak.

Williams’ organization focuses on helping refugees and immigrants establish new lives in the United States. Its goal is to assist them with achieving self-sufficiency by assisting them with meeting needs such as housing, jobs and schooling for family members.  

Williams pointed out that the U.S. birth rate is now below the rate necessary to maintain the population at its current levels, and by 2030 20% of the population will be 65 or older and out of the workforce. At the same time, 78% of those coming into the country as immigrants are between 18 and 64 years old.

“According to the U.S. Department of Labor, foreign-born employees accounted for 18% of the entire U.S. workforce last year, so it’s a fairly significant number,” he continued. “However, in Ohio, that number is just 5.6%.”

Williams called the strategy being spearheaded by the chamber and Eastgate a “great first step.” He also pointed to several communities in and around the Mahoning Valley. 

“Erie, Pa., for example, has an incredibly successful refugee resettlement program, and has for several decades. They’re doing some really innovative things with microenterprise to help people set up new businesses,” he said. Other communities include Akron’s North Hill Neighborhood, where refugees are “really invigorating the city,” and Pittsburgh, which has a couple different agencies that are working on resettlement initiatives.

The benefits to the communities from the newcomers include a “revitalization of neighborhoods and new energy,” he said.  

John Zabrucky

During the Thursday morning program, the chamber presented its Valley Champion award to Warren native John Zabrucky, founder of Modern Props Inc. Items made by Zabrucky’s company, which specializes in making props for science fiction films and fantasy films and television programs, have appeared in “Ghostbusters,” “Men in Black” and various films and shows in the “Star Trek” franchise.

Zabrucky recently donated several truckloads of props he built to the Trumbull County Historical Society, which is developing a science fiction museum. His collection hopefully “will only be like the genesis of a much bigger collection,” he said.

“They said that the museum would be an economic driver for the city of Warren, and that meant a lot to me, so that kind of sealed the deal,” he said. If I was a little boy or little girl and I saw some of the things that they’ll see … I just think it would be inspiring for people that have imaginations.”

Opening of the museum is probably another two to three years out, Meghan Reed, RCHS executive director, said. Seven of 10 truckloads of props have started arriving form California and are at an undisclosed location in Warren, and the proposed building for the museum has to be secured for the collection. The society already is working with Exhibits Concepts, an award-winning exhibit design firm, to help curate, fabricate and install the exhibit pieces.

“We definitely want there to be a lot of hands-on elements for both adults and children,” she said. That includes not only helping understand how props are made “but also looking at this from a science fiction perspective” regarding how the future was imagined when the props were made and how some aspects came to be realized.

Salute to Business Honorees


Keith Dunbar


Anthony Trevena


Chuck George


Marty Loney


Evan Schumann and Marisa Sergi-Schumann

Keith-Dunbar Anthony-Trevena Chuck-George Marty-Loney Evan-Schumann-Marisa-Sergi-Schumann

The chamber presented several other awards during Thursday morning’s program. Among those it recognized was Chuck George, managing partner of Sapientia Ventures, a Warren-based venture capital group that broke ground this month on a $9 million, 98,200-square-foot “spec” building designed to fit the needs of modern manufacturers and distributors.

A search for space for Greenboard IT, an electronics recycling company he and Sapientia partners Mike Martof and Wiley Runnestrand own, highlighted the need for quality manufacturing and warehousing space in the area, George said in a video. 

“We hope to develop over a million square feet over the next five to 10 years in that space and make it transformational for the region,” he said.

Other honorees at the chamber breakfast included Antony Trevena, executive director of the Western Reserve Port Authority, as Business Advocate of the Year; Evan Schumann and Marisa Sergi-Schumann, co-owners of L’uva Bella Winery, as Entrepreneurs of the Year; Keith Dunbar, president of Bral Corp., as Small Business Professional of the year; and Marty Loney, business manager for Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 396, recipient of the Salute to Labor Achievement Award.    

The event also featured remarks by Bob Jarvis, chairman of the Canfield Fair board of directors, and Doug Phillips, head football coach at Youngstown State University.

Pictured at top: Lee Williams, chief program officer for Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, and Lisa Long, financial resource development director for the Youngstown Area Jewish Federation.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.