Economic Development

Support from Local Leaders Boosts Smart2 Proposal

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The level of local support Youngstown stakeholders are showing for a $10.8 million federal transportation grant application seems to be having an impact on officials, said U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan following a phone conversation with Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao late last week.

Ryan, D-13 Ohio, said he spoke with Chao for about five minutes Friday. A week earlier, area partners met with Ohio’s two U.S. senators, members of the northeastern Ohio congressional delegation and transportation officials regarding their application for funds from the Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development, or Build, program.

Partners including the city of Youngstown, Eastgate Regional Council of Governments, Youngstown State University and Mercy Health-Youngstown are seeking the funds for the Strategic & Sustainable, Medical & Manufacturing, Academic & Arts, Residential & Recreational, Technology & Training – or Smart2 – Network.

Funding announcements are anticipated in the next month or so. Chao could not comment on any of the proposals submitted for the $1.5 billion in funding available for projects, but said the local support “does matter,” Ryan said.

The visit by the local delegation was “meaningful” and the level of congressional support for Youngstown’s application “was definitely taken into consideration,” he added. Ryan said he was impressed with the level of collaboration shown by the partners, as roughly 70 local entities and individuals have expressed their support for the project.

“I’m excited about it. This could really be a transformational project,” he said.

The grant would help fund transportation infrastructure improvements that include reducing the number of lanes on Fifth Avenue, adding bike lanes and potentially autonomous shuttles to serve YSU, Mercy’s St. Elizabeth Youngstown Hospital and Joseph Co. International’s manufacturing and research campus on the East Side.

Earlier this year, the local partners met with Department of Transportation officials for a debriefing after a prior application failed to get funded, then they made changes to the subsequent application.

“Working closely with the Department of Transportation to review our prior submissions, we’ve now addressed any outstanding issues we may have had in a prior proposal,” said Mike Hripko, associate vice president for external affairs, government relations and economic development at YSU.

Among the elements added were plans to deploy autonomous shuttles connecting St. Elizabeth’s, YSU and the Western Reserve Transit Authority downtown, said Jim Kinnick, executive director of Eastgate. The new application also highlights the safety improvements from reducing the number of lanes on Fifth Avenue and the partnerships involved with the application.

In addition, the non-federal match for the application now exceeds the $10.8 million in federal funds being sought, which was communicated to federal officials in a supplemental letter, and the partners are seeding additional opportunities. “That was a big deal to us,” Kinnick said.

The recent local delegation was “received well” by the federal lawmakers and agency officials when they met in Washington Sept. 27 and 28, Kinnick said.

The fact that the local application included “such a novel feature” as the autonomous shuttle element “was something that was positively viewed” by the officials the local delegation met with, Hripko said.

“We were very encouraged,” Hripko said. Elected officials representing the region all were “encouraging and supportive” and are expected to continue to offer their support and assistance.

“This proposal would make key infrastructure investments in downtown Youngstown to better connect our vibrant manufacturing, medical, academic, and businesses communities,” said U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. “This kind of economic development project is exactly what’s needed in the heart of the Mahoning Valley.”

U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said he was pleased to meet with community leaders on the Build grant application.

“I was impressed with how they laid out their vision for the project. They have gotten remarkable buy-in from key stakeholders across the city, and I believe their Build project would be transformative for the region,” he said. “I will continue to work with community leaders and Secretary Chao to support funding opportunities across Ohio.”

Added U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson: “This collaboration is a prime example of the innovative work being done by the Youngstown community.”

He also said he enjoyed meeting with the local officials for the update on the application, and that he supports their efforts “to build public-private partnerships to help spur economic development in the region and address transportation challenges for residents and businesses in the Mahoning Valley.”

The officials “appreciate the fact that our proposal is deployed locally but will have a regional impact,” Hripko said.

For example, St. Elizabeth Youngstown is the only Level I Trauma hospital between Cleveland and Pittsburgh, so it serves not only local residents but people from as far as 40 minutes away in every direction.

“A transportation infrastructure improvement in this area has benefits for those constituents who come here for medical treatment,” he said.

It also benefits the approximately 30% of YSU students who don’t live in Youngstown. “In our reviews, all of our elected officials appreciated the fact that we were cognizant of our regional responsibilities,” he added.

Ryan also said he was impressed with the degree of collaboration between the community partners and with the improvements made following the debriefing with Transportation officials earlier this year, which is something “smart communities do.”

Hripko acknowledged that competition for the funding will be tough. The Transportation Department received double the number of proposals it received during the last round “and it was pretty competitive last time,” he said.

The local partners are continuing to identify additional matching dollars and to solicit more letters of support as federal officials consider the Smart2 application, Kinnick said.

“Our intent in meeting with them is to make then understand that Youngstown is committed,” Hripko said. “All the constituents of Youngstown are committed to the success of this program.”

Pictured: A rendering of what Fifth Avenue could look like if the $10.8 Build grant is approved and the Smart2 Network moves forward. 

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.