Lake to River Development Key to Valley’s Future, Stakeholders Say

NILES, Ohio – A who’s who of the region’s community, political and business leaders packed into the Eastwood Events Centre on Wednesday to witness the launch of a new era in economic development.

Lake to River Economic Development – a new district that covers all of Mahoning, Trumbull, Columbiana, and Ashtabula counties – is designated to harness the assets of the four-county area to accelerate business growth across multiple industry sectors, officials said.

“This really recognizes the partnership between JobsOhio, Lake to River and all the work that’s come before to get us to here,” said Alexa Sweeney Blackann, Lake to River’s interim CEO. As of Wednesday, the website for the new entity is live, and now the work really begins, she said.  “Our team is so excited to learn from JobsOhio and really build this partnership.”

Gov. Mike DeWine formally announced the creation of the new district Wednesday afternoon before more than 200 guests. Lake to River is the seventh and final piece of the JobsOhio network across the state.

“I truly believe that this new economic development unit of these four counties will add more jobs, more opportunities, more prosperity for Ohioans from Lake Erie to the Ohio River,” the governor said, just before a curtain dropped unveiling the new logo for the district. 

DeWine reflected on his 40 years of visiting this region as first a congressman, senator, state attorney general and now as governor. Over the past four years, he reports the region has witnessed a 34% increase in business deals, a 23% increase in new jobs, a 61% increase in new payroll and a 140% increase in retaining jobs. 

Gov. Mike DeWine speaks about the new Lake to River Economic Development region Wednesday at the Eastwood Event Centre in Niles. At right is his wife, Fran.

“I’ve gotten to know the people of the Mahoning Valley,” DeWine said. So he was not surprised when a selection of business leaders from the four counties approached him some time ago to create this new district. “We all wanted to build on our love for this area and the economic success that we’ve seen,” he said.

DeWine said the district is the result of hard work that began 14 months ago from dozens of people who helped bring this project together. “This dedicated group is prepared to drive economic development in the future,” he said.

Canfield businessman Chuck George, the president of Lake to River’s Board of Directors, recognized some of those who were instrumental in crafting the district’s vision. He mentioned former Youngstown State University President Jim Tressel, who helped facilitate early efforts to create the district; current YSU President and former U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson; businessman Sam Covelli; attorney Matt Blair; Dave Johnson, Columbiana County Republican Party chairman; The Cafaro family; and Team NEO and its president, Bill Koehler.

He also recognized the work of Guy Coviello, president and CEO of the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber as an important partner in the effort. George added that the Mahoning Valley Partnership – which consists of the Regional Chamber, the Western Reserve Port Authority, Eastgate Regional Council of Governments, Valley Economic Development Partners and the Youngstown Foundation, commissioned consultants that created strategic plans for the new organization.

“The opportunity to be part of the JobsOhio network is welcome news for our region,” George said. “We have the attention, the backing, the resources and, now, the responsibility to take our community and regional economy to unprecedented success.”

This map shows JobsOhio’s seven economic development regions.

Lake to River Structure and Funding

Initially, Lake to River will consist of seven staff members. Five of the positions have been filled and include veterans from the local economic development community, said Lake to River’s CEO Blackann. Among the new team members are Sarah Boyarko, vice president of economic development; Michael McGiffin, vice president of engagement and investor relations; Michelle Phillips, researcher; David Wilaj, project manager; and Jason Neal, site manager.

The organization’s offices will be located in the City Centre One building in downtown Youngstown, where the port authority, Regional Chamber, Eastgate and the Youngstown Foundation all have offices.

Team NEO, the district organization that previously covered the four-county region as part of a larger 18-county district, will continue to support the region as it transitions to the new organization, Blackann said. “The governor’s office sees it; JobsOhio recognizes it; and now it’s up to us to make it happen,” she said.

JobsOhio, the private economic development arm that was established more than a decade ago, holds contracts with each of the seven networks, said Terry Slaybaugh, vice president of sites and infrastructure for JobsOhio. “We have two-year contracts with all seven of our networks,” he said.

JobsOhio supports these districts through business development and site development programs intended to build new business opportunities. 

Terry Slaybaugh, right, vice president of sites and infrastructure for JobsOhio, speaks about the new economic development region Wednesday. At left is Alexa Sweeney Blackann, Lake to River’s interim CEO.

Moreover, Mahoning and Trumbull counties have committed to contributing $400,000 apiece from its Valley Vision 2050 fund, said Trumbull County Commissioner Denny Malloy. The state would then match the county contributions for a total of $1.6 million, he added. 

Malloy said with its own district, the region could better attract additional state funding for projects here instead of competing with other cities as part of the larger Team NEO area. “It’ll be our own pool money – just enough for the four of us,” he said. “It’s a great deal that we’re being recognized now as an economic force.”

The Regional Chamber’s Coviello said the Lake to River consortium also opens the potential of collaboration across the state border into Pennsylvania.

“By pooling resources and working together, we can expand the economy more rapidly,” he said.  One initiative, for example, is working with Icelandair, which is beginning direct flights and cargo operations from Pittsburgh. Such a relationship could create “good supply chain opportunities for businesses here to find new markets in Iceland. So we, as a chamber, partnered with economic development organizations in western Pennsylvania to take full advantage of that connection.”

He said the chamber’s role in economic development isn’t likely to change much, noting the organization will still conduct site and business visits. 

Anthony Trevena, Western Reserve Port Authority executive director, said districts across Ohio that border other states have successfully partnered in economic development projects. “If you go down to Cincinnati and look at that model, they do a lot of partnering with Kentucky, and I think you’re going to see that here as well.”

The Lake to River district, he added, is a boost for the entire region. “It’s exciting to see this formalized into this effort, and I think it’s a great thing for our Valley and our community.”

Pictured at top: From left are Chuck George, Alexa Sweeney Blackann, Gov. Mike DeWine, Fran DeWine, Terry Slaybaugh and Bill Koehler.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.