Public Policy Conference Shares Economic Development, Energy Strategies

HOWLAND, Ohio – Development officials agree that opportunities to grow the region’s economy have never been better.

However, there needs to be a cohesive effort between local government, philanthropy, education and business to develop a strategy to secure these opportunities and compete with other regions across the country.

That’s the goal of a new initiative launched by the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber, which hosted its first Mahoning Valley Public Policy Conference at the Grand Resort on Wednesday. 

The conference drew approximately 50 attendees from the region representing the technology, energy, workforce development and public sectors.

A critical factor in creating new opportunities in the region is site readiness, said Guy Coviello, president and CEO of the Chamber. 

“That’s across the whole spectrum,” he says. “Industrial, commercial and residential.”

Coviello, who served as a panelist during a morning discussion on economic development, said that the Mahoning Valley is at a “competitive disadvantage” when it comes to securing and developing sites suitable for market demands.

“We need to work together long term,” Coviello said.  “We need to do it strategically so that we’re not investing in sites that have no hope of producing.”

Among Covelli’s concerns is that communities will lobby heavily to clean up brownfield sites without fully considering whether they hold any potential for future development.

“My biggest fear is that the community that screams the loudest will get their brownfield cleaned without any thought as to whether that brownfield will ever produce a job,” Coviello said. “Unless we’re working together to identify where these site selectors want to be, we could be spending a whole bunch of money on something that doesn’t deserve public investment.”

Coviello says, for example, developers want sites with access to high volumes of water and electricity.  “That’s a trend that isn’t going to change,” he said. 

Another feature that is important to new development is locating within populated areas, Coviello noted.  Acreage on the East Side of Youngstown or the West Side of Warren is especially ripe for development because it would “put jobs where there are people.”

Other overlooked issues such as the lack of cold storage facilities in the area interferes with the region’s ability to lure developers to the Mahoning Valley, he said.

“We have a shortage of shovel-ready sites,” Coviello says. 

This lack of site inventory is especially frustrating for development officials, Coviello said, since the chamber is receiving more project leads than ever. “We’ve actually a handful of times this year took developers to competing communities because we didn’t have what they wanted,” he said.

Developers want existing buildings today, Coviello cautioned, and there’s not a single “spec” building available in this region. “Northeast Ohio has millions of square feet of spec space either built or under construction and zero of that is in the Mahoning Valley,” he said.

Still, Coviello reported that investment is very strong in this region. “2020 was a banner year for us. There was more economic development investment in the Mahoning Valley than any other region of Ohio,” nearly $3 billion, he said.

So far this year, the amount of leads the organization has received for projects is about double what it was in 2020, and the number of leads for megaprojects has quadrupled.

“We can’t capitalize alone,” Coviello said, emphasizing partnerships with entities such as the Eastgate Regional Council of Governments, the Western Reserve Port Authority, JobsOhio and Team NEO.  “Those partnerships need to expand.”

Attendees also heard from panelists representing the energy industry and how it supports economic development throughout the region.

“All of our steel casings are produced at Vallourec,” said Jackie Stewart, spokeswoman for Encino Energy, which is the largest oil producer and second-largest natural gas producer in Ohio.

Vallourec, a pipe and tube manufacturer with a major operation in Youngstown, is among the many vendors Encino relies on for its drilling operations.

“We spend more money on contractor labor than internal employees,” she said. “We support thousands of contractors.  Seventy percent of our vendors are here in Ohio.”

Bill Koehler, CEO of Cleveland-based Team NEO, said there is tremendous opportunity in the Mahoning Valley, especially as companies such as Ultium Cells LLC increase production and Foxconn develops its electric-vehicle plans in Lordstown.

“The work being done in the community to build a cohesive strategy that everyone in the Mahoning Valley is aligned around – that’s going to create a number of opportunities,” he said.  “I like the direction that the leaders of the community are going.”

Economic development, Koehler said, is becoming increasingly more competitive. “Their expectations have ratcheted higher,” he said of the private sector. 

Communities today have to meet criteria in areas such as an available and reliable workforce, other development partners, and marketable sites.  “We as a community have to meet these expectations if we’re going to compete against other communities that are better capitalized and better aligned.,” he said.

Cooperation is also integral to securing federal and state funding that could help spur economic development initiatives.

Among those public funding sources is the Governor’s Office of Appalachia, said its director, John Carey, which covers 32 counties in Ohio. The office works with the federal Appalachian Regional Commission.

Ohio’s program is also matched with state funds, Carey said, and the office works on infrastructure projects and broadband initiatives.

Carey said the office would announce its next round of Power – an acronym for Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization – grants next week. 

“The program targets federal resources to impacted communities,” he said.

During the last round in the spring, for example, the Youngstown Business Incubator received $1.35 million toward its Lake-to-River Small Business Initiative, he said.

Carey said his organization’s Inspire program has also helped with funding assistance that enable recovering addicts to enter or re-enter the workforce.

“It’s an exciting opportunity,” Carey said. “In the current budget, there’s $13 million available for Inspire grants,” which usually have a maximum of $500,000 per project.

Another opportunity for the region to secure funding is through the Appalachian Community Grant Program, he said.

This community development program helps fund priorities that include downtown redevelopment, quality-of-life improvements, as well as projects such as industrial parks.  It also helps to fund health programs – local farmer’s markets, for example – and other community-based efforts, as well as broadband accessibility. .

“We’re trying to make this as flexible as possible,” Carey said. “We think that you folks would have great ideas about what you want to apply for that we haven’t thought of.”

Pictured at top: Guy Coviello, president and CEO, Youngstown Warren Regional Chamber; John Carey, director of the Governor’s Office of Appalachia; Jim Kinnick, executive director, Eastgate Regional Council of Governments.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.