Growth Report 2: Business and Beautification – ARPA Money Ignites Projects

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – A courtyard and balcony leading to the ballroom at Corinthian Event Center in downtown Sharon, Pa., should be ready by Memorial Day weekend, says its owner, John Bianco.

It’s a timeline Bianco outlines with “cautious optimism.” He is awaiting final plans to be completed before he puts the work out for bid but expects the addition will cost around $250,000. He recently demolished an adjacent building to accommodate the expansion.

Whatever the final bill ends up being, the expansion project is being supported by a $175,000 grant provided by the city of Sharon. It’s an award made possible from the approximately $14.4 million the city received in American Rescue Plan funds. The federal money will help the project “immensely,” Bianco says.  The addition should be ready by the summer season, providing more space for wedding parties.

The American Rescue Plan Act, signed into law in 2021, addresses the need for relief caused by the continuing effects of the pandemic. The legislation included $350 billion in emergency funding for state, local, territorial and tribal governments. The funds must be obligated by Dec. 31, 2024, and spent by Dec. 31, 2026.

Local government entities in the Mahoning and Shenango valleys received direct allocations of ARPA funds. This includes $82.8 million for the city of Youngstown, $28.6 for the city of Warren, $44.4 million for Mahoning County and $38.5 million for Trumbull County.

The cash infusion has enabled local leaders to address equipment and infrastructure needs, put money toward their projects and launch direct business assistance programs that were just ideas before the ARPA money provided the resources to execute them.

Elected officials sought recommendations on how to spend the funds. They held public forums, set up online portals and had direct contact with their residents.

“We deliberately sought input from the citizens,” Warren Mayor Doug Franklin says. The city hosted town halls with suggestions broken down into categories such as facilities, infrastructure, public improvements and economic development. 

“This has been a great opportunity,” says Nikki Posterli, chief of staff to Youngstown Mayor Jamael Tito Brown and director of the department of community planning and economic development. “We’re still allowing those who have submitted proposals to come in and present their plans to us. We’re kind of in the homestretch.”

Help for Small Businesses

Valley Partners, a regional economic development organization in Liberty Township, has administered ARPA-funded programs for Mahoning and Trumbull counties.

In 2021, Mahoning County provided $1 million for business grants. The following year, Trumbull County provided $2 million. Capped at $10,000, the grants were based on losses businesses suffered during the pandemic.

In Trumbull County, 214 small businesses received grants, according to Teresa Miller, executive director of Valley Partners. From the Mahoning County funds, 110 small businesses were awarded grants. 

Companies of all kinds benefited, from contractors, pavers, restaurants and bars, to dance studios, bowling alleys and day care centers. “They were all over the board,” Miller says.

In addition, both counties provided funds to establish revolving loan programs – $2 million from Mahoning County that went to 25 small businesses and $1 million from Trumbull County, of which $662,000 remained as of late January. 

“As people pay back, more funds will be available,” Miller says.

Businesses that took advantage of the revolving loan funds included Steel Valley Deals on Wheels in Girard, which borrowed $120,000 from funds Trumbull County provided, and Immaculate Reflection Car Wash in Campbell, which borrowed $75,000 from Mahoning County’s allocation.

Steel Valley Deals on Wheels, which has operated for six years, used the loan funds to acquire its own building for the business, which is leasing space now. The company expects to be in the new space in March.

“We are in the process of doing a bit of renovating and fixing some of the inside before we can fully function,” Chasidy Ballack, co-owner, says. She describes herself as “super excited” to secure the loan, given the difficulties small businesses sometimes have securing money from traditional banks. 

Immaculate Reflection used the money it borrowed from Mahoning’s revolving loan fund to install a new roof and convert two of the car wash’s six self-serve bays to touch-free automatics, co-owner T.J. Rogers says. Without the funds, the project likely would have been scaled back.

“Refreshing the property and now offering a new service has definitely been a boost for business,” he says.

Major Projects

Valley Partners has done an excellent job for us,” Mahoning County Commissioner Carol Rimedio-Righetti says. “We’ve helped a lot of businesses using them as our “agent.”

In addition, Mahoning County directed more than $1.7 million to projects at the former Youngstown Developmental Center, now known as the Mahoning Valley Campus of Care. That spending included construction of a commercial greenhouse that will supply the Healthy Access Mahoning Valley Foods program overseen by Flying High Inc., an onsite commercial kitchen and the Mahoning Valley Mobile Market, which also received ARPA funds.

Mahoning ARPA funds supplied about half of the $450,000 for the greenhouse project, which should be completed by the end of February, says Sarah Lown, public finance manager for the Western Reserve Port Authority, which manages the campus.

Other ARPA funds covered repaving the access driveway to the campus, creating more handicapped-access ramps and expanding parking.

ARPA funds also are being used for housing for senior citizens with special needs that will be operated by Compass Family & Community Services, Lown says. Funds from ARPA have proven crucial for executing the Campus of Care project.

“The costs went up from the time we got our initial estimates to the time we got funding secured,” she says, then increased again when contracts were put out for bid.  

The county also provided $184,000 in ARPA funds to the Mahoning Valley Manufacturers Coalition, $250,000 for Lowellville’s Riverfront Park and $1.5 million for redevelopment projects in Campbell and Struthers.

“There are a lot of businesses throughout the county that need a shot in the arm because of COVID. And that’s what this money was intended to do,” Trumbull County Commissioner Denny Malloy says. He doesn’t want the money to go to governments to “patch holes in our budgets,” which he contends was being done before he took office in January. 

He says his priority is to ensure that the ARPA money “gets spread around and is prioritized.” So far, about $23 million of Trumbull’s allocation has been spent.

“I was a little disappointed to see we’ve spent so much already,” Malloy says. “It seems like an awful lot of this money has been spent in and around Warren and in and around county facilities.”

Malloy would like to see more input from townships, which “have been overlooked for years and years,” he says.

“A lot of the townships have been grossly underfunded and not shown much love from county government. I would like to see this ARP money get a fair shake through the township level as well as where we’re spending it here locally.”

A meeting in early February focused on allocating money to the Trumbull County Fairgrounds, travel and tourism efforts and a few nonprofit organizations. An organization that conducts Amish tours “hit hard by COVID” – its business went down 95% – requested funding, Malloy says.

City Spending

The Corinthian is among several businesses and organizations that received a total of $3.38 million in ARPA funds from the city of Sharon.

“A lot of times, brides are doing one-stop shopping,” the venue’s Bianco says. “I’d be able to do an outdoor ceremony and cocktail hour and then move it indoors, for example, depending on the time of year. Or it might be a smaller event where they just want it outdoors.”

Sharon has also provided ARPA money for several new or expanding businesses, façade improvements, student housing, the long-planned aquaponics project at The Landing, and $1 million for the LaunchBox & Innovation Network at the Penn State University Shenango Campus. 

LaunchBox offers resources to entrepreneurs, says the director of downtown development, Sherris Moreira.

“We want to support our current businesses,” adds city manager Bob Fiscus, as well as attract new business.

The cities of Youngstown and Warren are also working with Valley Partners to manage loan and grant programs. Youngstown announced its programs in January, while Warren is still working out details. 

Youngstown has launched two ARPA-funded programs with Valley Partners: a $2 million revolving loan fund and a $1 million façade program.

Loans from Youngstown’s revolving loan fund are capped at $150,000.

The façade program is being structured as a forgivable loan program, covering up to half of exterior improvements to commercial properties, up to $20,000.

Businesses accepting the facade funds are required to remain operating in the location for at least five years, with 20% of the loan forgiven each year. “It can be painting, siding, signage, landscaping, paving – the only thing they don’t allow is roofing,” Miller says.

As of late January, the organization hadn’t received any applications for the revolving loan fund but was working though “a handful of applications” for the façade funds, she reports. After Valley Partners’ loan committee reviews an application, it is forwarded to city’s design review committee to ensure the proposed improvements meet city standards.

“It’s important to note that this is for new projects, so somebody that updated their building last year unfortunately missed out on the chance to utilize this program,” Miller says. “It’s for people that haven’t started the project yet.” 

As of Jan. 23, Youngstown has encumbered just over $51 million of its ARPA funds, including $14 million for each of the city’s seven wards, leaving nearly $32 million. 

Spending that Youngstown has authorized includes $500,000 for the port authority to manage capital improvement projects along the Mahoning Avenue corridor from ARPA allocations for the 4th and 5th wards.

City officials hope to replicate the Mahoning Avenue model elsewhere in the city, including the Market Street and Belmont Avenue corridors. “We want to focus on our core and corridor cleanups in redevelopment strategies,” chief of staff Posterli says.

In addition, the city provided ARPA funds for various initiatives by Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp. They include $100,000 to support YNDC’s renovation of the Foster Theater on Glenwood Avenue, $94,000 for home repairs in the 5th Ward, and $725,000 to build three houses at the corner of Glenwood Avenue and High Street.

“Some of these things wouldn’t get done without the support,” YNDC Executive Director Ian Beniston says.

Other initiatives receiving funds from Youngstown’s ARPA allocation are the Youngstown CityScape at Briel greenhouse project and a site readiness program with the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber. 

The city of Warren received $31 million in requests from the public through town hall meetings and an online application portal – more than the $28.6 million the city received, Mayor Doug Franklin says.

“Because we received so many requests – more than our total allocation – we tried to be creative,” he says.

The city of Warren also launched a façade initiative, with about half of the $1 million set aside for that program distributed so far. “We started out at $300,000 but the program needed to be restructured because of the number of applications,” Franklin says. Warren Redevelopment and Planning is administering that program.

Franklin is proposing a $1.5 million revolving loan fund that Valley Partners would manage. The city has experience with such programs through a separate fund operated by Warren Redevelopment and Planning.

“We’ll be setting up the parameters and guidelines for that along with City Council,” Franklin says. He also envisions a $500,000 grant program for nonprofits.     

Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership leveraged $1.5 million the city provided from its ARPA allotment – along with funds from Trumbull County – to secure $7.2 million in state demolition funds. The money will be used mostly to demolish residential properties and the city’s former community services building, 418 S. Main Ave. This will allow TNP to work through most of the city’s demolition list, TNP Executive Director Matt Martin says.

Other ARPA spending the city approved included more than $3 million for upgrades at Warren Community Amphitheater.  

Opening Opportunities

The ARPA funding has opened opportunities for their communities to address priorities, revive old initiatives and launch new ones.    

“Before now, everything was just a plan because we didn’t have the funding to support them,” Posterli says. “So why not use these dollars while we have them available?”

In Sharon, ARPA spending is spurring excitement and curiosity, says the director of downtown development, Sherris Moreira. Calls from businesses interested in coming to Sharon have picked up, as has the frequency of site tours.

Mahoning Commissioner Rimedio-Righetti credits the federal government with providing the funds to city and county governments “so that we could put it to use where we see fit under their guidelines.”

The Mahoning County administrator, Audrey Tillis, says the guidelines permit county officials to spend the funds in ways it normally cannot.

“My concern is when those dollars go away that people say, ‘You did this for this. Why can’t you do it for that?’ Normally, you can’t do it for that,” Tillis says.

Mahoning County’s focus was on providing funds for projects that would be sustainable after the initial funds were expended.

“We get them to the point where they’re able to move on,” Rimedio-Righetti says. “They just needed a push to get there and that’s what this money helped them to do.”

Pictured at top: John Bianco stands outside his Corinthian Event Center where an expansion project is partially funded by ARPA money.

Copyright 2023 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.