Retired Professor, Reporter Reflect on History of Valley

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The rich ethnic and industrial history of the Mahoning Valley, its recent accomplishments and challenges, and prospects for the future was the subject Thursday at the Tyler Mahoning Valley History Center.

Host was the Mahoning Valley Historical Society.

The program, “The Peopling of the Mahoning Valley Revisited,” was delivered by George D. Beelen, professor emeritus of history at Youngstown State University, and Dan O’Brien, associate editor of The Business Journal.

Beelen, also the president of the history society board of directors, introduced the film, “The Peopling of the Mahoning Valley,” which he helped produce with the Ohio Cultural Alliance in 1996 as part of the celebrations of the bicentennial of the city of Youngstown bicentennial and sesquicentennial of Mahoning County.

“Good afternoon, immigrants, which we all are,” he reminded the attendance gathered for the history society’s Bites and Bits of History Lunch Program. Beelen acknowledged the contributions of immigrant groups in the region, from the first Native American settlers to recent immigrants from Latin America and the Middle East.

The film, narrated by the late Don Guthrie, is a 40-minute synopsis of the 200-year history of the Valley and its cultural diversity. It ends in 1996 with an optimistic nod to the future, despite the region still licking its wounds in the wake of the retrenchment of the steel industry during the 1970s and 1980s.

Following the film, O’Brien directed attention to what has transpired in the community since 1996, focusing on how the Mahoning Valley has since evolved economically and politically.

Among the highlights over the last two decades was construction of Vallourec Star’s $1 billion rolling mill, which began operations in 2012. Efforts of the Youngstown Business Incubator to spark a technology and advanced manufacturing sector in the area, and production of the Chevrolet Cruze at General Motors Co.’s Lordstown complex.

“Clearly, there are still challenges,” O’Brien said, most notably in the manufacturing community, neighborhood stability and the continuing loss of population in both the city and Mahoning County.

The number of those employed in the manufacturing sector in the Youngstown-Warren Metropolitan Statistical Area in 1996 stood at roughly 59,000, O’Brien noted. Today, that number is 29,400.

Conversely, the region has witnessed job growth in the service sectors, most visibly in education and medical services. Twenty years ago, 32,000 were employed in this sector, today 44,000.

What has changed for the better is the transformation of Youngstown’s central business district, O’Brien said. In 1996, Federal Plaza was still covered with brick, while a large segment of the West End was littered with shuttered storefronts and dilapidated structures. Today, those buildings have been razed, replaced with new construction, or preserved and repurposed into offices, restaurants, taverns and apartments.

Moreover, younger business and community leaders — those too young to remember the thriving steel industry and its devastating recoil – belong to a generation that has largely witnessed a city on the comeback, no longer in decline, he said.

“It’s this generation that will shape the future of the Valley,” O’Brien observed.

The Historical Society hosts its Bites and Bits of History Lunch at noon on the third Thursday of each month. The programs are free and open to the public.

Pictured at the event: Retired YSU professor George Beelen, the Mahoning Valley Historical Society’s Bill Lawson, and The Business Journal’s Dan O’Brien.

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