Mega Plans for Voltage Valley

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – In the coming weeks, the region could receive a major jolt that many say would be transformational to the Voltage Valley.

By September, a consortium led by the Cleveland-based Manufacturing Advocacy Network, or Magnet, should know whether it has won a $75 million grant through the federal government’s Build Back Better Challenge program. Brite Energy Innovators, based in Warren, is a partner in the Magnet consortium.

“We’ll find out in the next few weeks,” says Rick Stockburger, president and CEO of Brite. The Magnet proposal calls for $11.25 million of grant monies to go to Brite, most of which would fund renovation of the former Republic Steel office building on Pine Avenue in Warren to develop a battery-testing laboratory and workforce development center.

The grant proposal timeline suggests that recipients be under contract with the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration by Sept. 30.

“It’s a transformational project for our region,” Stockburger says. A large-scale testing facility would enhance the capabilities of major companies such as Ultium Cells, which is finishing construction of its $2.3 billion electric vehicle battery cell manufacturing plant in Lordstown.

The testing facility would serve other companies involved in battery production or EV manufacturing, Stockburger says. 

Lordstown Motors, for example, is set to launch production of the all-electric Endurance pickup during the third quarter. The sale of Lordstown Motors’ plant to Foxconn in May opens the doors for other EV manufacturers to locate within the 6.2 million square-foot complex once owned by General Motors.

Last year, Foxconn secured a contract manufacturing agreement with Fisker Inc., which now plans to build its next EV, the Fisker Pear, in the plant.

Then, on Aug. 9, Monarch Tractors announced it would begin production via a contract manufacturing agreement with Foxconn of “next-generation agricultural equipment and battery packs” at the Lordstown complex. Production of a “driver optional” tractor is expected to begin this year.

The concentration of EV-related companies in the region has led to rebranding the Mahoning Valley as the “Voltage Valley,” a phrase that has caught on nationally.

“It’s a great opportunity for these companies to have this type of capability so close, and a great opportunity for us,” Stockburger says. “We’re able to provide battery testing on a larger scale to support Ultium, Foxconn and others in this space.”

Brite is an energy incubator that houses a handful of startup companies in downtown Warren and supports energy portfolio companies across the state.  The Magnet proposal is among 60 finalists in the country out of more than 500 applicants. Of those 60 finalists, between 20 and 30 proposals are expected to receive grant awards.

Central to the project is the renovation of 999 Pine Ave., a 66,000 square-foot office and administration building constructed in the early 1980s by Republic Steel Corp.

The building sits across the street from approximately 1,000 acres of vacant brownfield land once occupied by the sprawling steel manufacturing complex, which made steel at the site for more than 100 years under a succession of owners until it shut down as RG Steel in 2012.

In 2020, an entity related to MegaJoule Ventures, a portfolio company of Brite, purchased the building for $775,000. Brite and MegaJoule are working in tandem to redevelop the complex into a hub that incorporates battery testing and workforce development and houses energy companies that outgrow space at Brite.

One of those companies, Intwine Connect, is already in the building. “They have about 20 employees working out of there,” Stockburger says. 

Stockburger says Brite receives inquiries every day related to potential business opportunities. “It’s really exciting,” he says.

MegaJoule’s primary business is to fund early-stage energy companies and scale them to profitability and growth, says its president Herb Crowther. As such, MegaJoule manages its own portfolio companies, most of which have an element of energy storage and energy efficiency. 

“We’ve invested in some of the companies in Brite,” Crowther says, as well as other companies in other states and Canada. “As they scale up, they’ll scale up in Warren.”

The Pine Avenue project is estimated to cost approximately $20 million, $10 million of which would come from the grant money and another $10 million in private funding from MegaJoule, according to Crowther.

“We’ve already completed conceptual designs,” he says. Should the project be funded, detailed designs would begin by the end of this year, and construction on the battery testing lab could start in 2023.

The testing and advanced material research lab is planned for the building’s second floor, Crowther says. 

“Our business model is to be a high performance, convenient, and cost-effective third party” that can further test battery and energy storage devices after initial testing is completed in-house by companies such as Ultium and Foxconn, he says. 

“There is a variable amount of testing that needs to be done outside,” he says, since companies are required to validate certain materials and components throughout the year.

Crowther says the proposal calls for using half of the second floor as a testing lab, while the other half would be carved out for workforce development space. 

“That’s our education wing,” he says. Youngstown State University and Eastern Gateway Community College have committed to placing classrooms there, he says.

The ground floor would be used for collaborative open space that is “responsive to the innovation ecosystem,” Crowther says.

“It’s not exclusive to energy, but it’s targeted,” he says. “We want to make sure it achieves everything the energy community needs, but it will cut across other market segments.” 

Crowther says the plan is to construct additional space with high ceilings on the east side of the building to accommodate other operations on the ground floor.

However, renovating the former Republic Steel offices is just one part of MegaJoule’s plan for the area.

Crowther says he plans to redevelop a 184-acre site along Pine Avenue into an industrial park devoted to indoor agriculture and the manufacture of biomass materials. 

“Some of that would be vertical farming in a controlled environment,” Crowther says. “Some of it is the conversion of agricultural waste – biomass – that can be converted into specialty chemicals.”

Crowther clarifies that the specialty chemicals in this case would be solid feedstock used in bio-based plastics, while some products would also consist of bio-based fuels.

MegaJoule is working with the landowner, Crowther says, on the property’s potential.

The additional acreage that Crowther has targeted for development sits about one mile south of the building and is contiguous with the former Republic Steel Corp. land now owned by the Western Reserve Port Authority. The project could yield “tens of thousands of square feet” for companies – including Brite portfolio firms – that continue to expand, Crowther says. 

“If we’re successful with this, we have bigger plans,” he says. “Our ambition is to provide one million square feet for companies that want to stay in the neighborhood.”

The 184 acres was once leased to the U.S. Department of Defense to store materials used to manufacture military equipment and weapons, Crowther says. Currently, there are seven buildings on the property totaling more than one million square feet. 

The site – deemed the Warren Depot by the military – was used by Defense from the 1960s until about 10 years ago. When the military pulled up stakes, it also cleaned the property of any environmental contaminants.

“I’ve been working on this for a long time,” Crowther says of the various projects with Brite. 

“We have an unusual concentration of the major elements.”

Crowther says he’s not prepared to disclose the entire scope of the projects he’s working on for the region, but hints that they should have a significant impact on the Mahoning Valley.

“If we’re modestly successful, we’ll be a national story,” he says.

Pictured at top: The MegaJoule website displays this before-and-after depiction of how the site would be transformed.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.