Shovels Turn to Launch $31M Smart2 Project

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Community leaders celebrating the launch of an estimated $31 million infrastructure project downtown envision an impact beyond the central business district’s borders.

Federal, state and local officials participated in Tuesday’s groundbreaking event for the first phase of the Smart2 – Strategic & Sustainable, Medical & Manufacturing, Academic & Arts, Residential & Recreational, Technology & Training – Network project. The Fifth Avenue work will be followed by upgrades to adjacent downtown streets and the implementation of an autonomous shuttle service.

The project is being funded in part by a $10.85 million U.S. Department of Transportation grant awarded in 2018. The money is from the department’s Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development, or Build, grant program.

Contractor Parella-Pannunzio Inc. is expected to begin work the week of July 6 on the network’s first phase, a yearlong reconfiguration of Fifth Avenue from West Federal Street to the Madison Avenue Expressway.

“This is a transformational project that certainly emphasizes safety, connecting the downtown business district with the university and further north to Mercy Health,” said Jim Kinnick, executive director of Eastgate Regional Council of Governments.

Jim Kinnick, executive director of Eastgate Regional Council of Governments

In addition to a road diet that will reduce the number of lanes on Fifth from six to one in each direction plus a turn lane, the project will include bump outs for buses and a proposed autonomous shuttle, traffic signal upgrades, enhanced lighting and multi-use paths on either side of the corridor.

Kinnick hailed the safety improvements that will result from the project, particularly for Youngstown State University students who have to cross Fifth Avenue as they go to and from campus.

“It’s also an economic development driver that we really hope to capitalize on,” he said.

Eastgate was the lead agency among a group of community partners that collaborated to apply for the Build grant, which was announced in December 2018. Partners included the city of Youngstown, YSU, Western Reserve Transit Authority and Mercy Health – Youngstown.

“We got knocked down a couple of times,” Kinnick said, referring to two unsuccessful attempts to secure federal funding from a Build predecessor. Each time the partners revisited their application and made improvements to the application and the project. “What’s important to recognize is the reason we’re standing here today is because the region came together in this ask.”

Kinnick credited the roles played by the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber, Western Reserve Port Authority, Western Reserve Transit Authority and Youngstown CityScape in securing the project.

“We have to ask for what we want as leaders,” Mayor Jamael Tito Brown said. “We have to stand up for what we need and I knew that the people of Youngstown needed this.”

Brown – who last week went into self-quarantine following exposure to someone who tested positive for coronavirus – spoke Tuesday morning at the event after he said he tested negative. The mayor noted that the local partners went to Washington on several occasions to lobby on behalf of the application.

“We all had our part. My part was talking about what Youngstown used to be, then I started talking about what it can be,” Brown said.

“This was a team effort,” First Ward Councilman Julius Oliver affirmed. During the lobbying trips, the people he spoke to needed “to see that Youngstown is worthy of investment, that Youngstown is worthy to be pushed forward,” he said.

“Everybody in Youngstown needs to see this project as something that’s going to be able to reach further than just downtown,” Oliver said.

Unlike a lot of things in politics and economic development, the results of this project will be seen by the citizens of Youngstown and the people of the Mahoning Valley, U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-13 Ohio, said. The project ties together with other forward-looking initiatives locally, including the General Motors-LG Chem battery plant and Lordstown Motors, developments at the Youngstown Business Incubator and America Makes, research at YSU and the Brite Energy Innovators incubator in Warren.

“This is a regional approach about us winning the future, us shaping the future for ourselves,” he said.

Mayor Jamael Tito Brown

Several speakers addressed the collaborative nature of the effort that crossed political lines and praised the efforts of Ryan and his fellow Democrat U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown and Republican U.S. Sen. Rob Portman and U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, R-6 Ohio. Also cited was Ryan’s working relationship with U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.

When it comes to community projects like these, party labels don’t matter, Ryan said.

“My job is to build relationships, here and in D.C.,” he continued. Chao “understood this project” and “helped us as we got knocked down.” The partners “kept trying and massaged the argument, and here we are with a big, transformational project.”

YSU President Jim Tressel praised the individuals who did the behind-the-scenes work, writing and researching to give the group “a great project” that deserved to be considered for funding.

Tressel spoke of the transformative effect that a roadwork project on Wick Avenue a few years ago had on the east side of the campus and the city. He envisioned the Fifth Avenue project having the same effect.

“As soon as we changed Wick Avenue, the driving behavior changed,” becoming slower and “more thoughtful,” he said.

“This truly will be transformative,” he continued. “I cannot wait to see the end product because it’s going to be a difference-maker for this entire region.”

If Wick Avenue was transformation, The Fifth Avenue work will be “like Wick Avenue on steroids,” added Charles Shasho, the city’s deputy director of public works.

T. Sharon Woodberry, city economic development director, said she hoped that the way Youngstown is viewed would change with the corridor.

“There’s a lot for us to be proud of,” she said.

The Fifth Avenue project got started a little later than planned because of the coronavirus pandemic but should be completed in a year, Kinnick said. Phase two, which should take about two years, should break ground in spring 2021 and implementation of the final phase the autonomous shuttle will take place in fall 2022 or spring 2023.

While the mood was congratulatory Tuesday, Kinnick said the partners are looking at what else they can do. A group led by the port authority is pursuing a Build grant for infrastructure improvements to capitalize on smart technology and advanced-energy projects in the Lordstown area, including the battery plant project and Lordstown Motors.

The application was submitted in March. “That evaluation process usually takes most of the summer,” Kinnick said.

Pictured at top: Taking part in the groundbreaking Tuesday were the city’s deputy director of public works, Charles Shasho, Muhammad Abdul Shakur, 3rd Ward Councilwoman Samantha Turner, 7th Councilwoman Basia Adamczak, 1st Ward Councilman Julius Oliver, YSU President Jim Tressel, Mayor Jamael Tito Brown, WRTA Executive Director Dean Harris, U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan and Jim Kinnick, executive director of Eastgate Regional Council of Governments.

Copyright 2020 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.