You Can Go Home Again: Valley Natives Return

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – They lived in large cities and foreign lands but returned to the Mahoning Valley to build their lives.

Family – or a job – played a role in their decisions to return. But the people, the community, the experiences and the opportunities keep them here.

Alison Gasser, John Slanina and Betsy Bresnahan came back. They’re a sample of the return tenet of the repopulation plan for the Mahoning Valley, engineered by the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber and Eastgate Regional Council of Governments.

Those entities are focusing on three R’s in their plan: return people who have relocated, retain young people and receive newcomers including refugees and legal immigrants.

Finding Community

I would say that Youngstown is a place where, if you’re willing to work at it, you can create profound meaning and things that you care about,” says Slanina, who lives on the west side of Youngstown in a home his grandfather built. “However, you will have to work at it. It’s not just going to fall into your lap.”

For him, that profound meaning comes from being involved and a sense of community. He, along with his brother and a handful of others, started the Rocky Ridge Neighborhood Association. He’s part of a tamburitzan band. He’s one of the organizers of the annual Simply Slavic festival in Youngstown. He hangs out at Westside Bowl and Noble Creature, both in Youngstown and at Modern Methods in Warren. He finds community there, pointing to trivia nights and potluck dinners that draw established crowds.

Slanina graduated from Ursuline High School and Youngstown State University and earned his master’s degree at Georgia Institute of Technology. He spent his first year of grad school in France. After graduating, he lived in the Netherlands, Washington, D.C., and several other U.S. cities. While living in the Netherlands, he started the Shout Youngstown blog about his hometown.

Slanina was living in Columbus, working in economic development for a nonprofit when he got a call about an opportunity in Youngstown. A return wasn’t something he had planned.

“I always had a fondness” for the area, “but I wouldn’t say it was a profound aspiration to return,” Slanina says.

He started hanging out more in Youngstown though and building relationships. Jim Cossler, former executive director of the Youngstown Business Incubator, was aware of Slanina’s work and contacted him about a possible job. A company, Revere Data, was considering opening a branch in Youngstown. Slanina was hired by the fintech company, now FactSet, and returned to Youngstown. He’s worked there for the last 15 years.

Joining Family Business

Gasser of Liberty returned about 18 months ago after 15 years in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., because she wanted to help in her family’s business, Gasser Chair, and because she was impressed with what was happening in the community.

She’s the sustainability coordinator for the 76-year-old company, based on the north side of Youngstown. Gasser Chair manufactures chairs for the hospitality and gaming industries. The company was started by her grandfather.

After working in Los Angeles, for nonprofits and then in lighting design, Gasser picked up and moved to the nation’s capital to enroll in a master’s degree program in sustainability at American University. She graduated a year early and secured interviews at major companies with plans to return to the West Coast but her hometown was never far from her thoughts. When she got an offer from a major technology company, she reviewed the job description.

“I remember [thinking], I can do that at Gasser,” she says. Two weeks later she moved back to the Valley and started working at the family business. “I think as you get to know yourself, you know what works for you and what doesn’t. I knew that this was something that I had always wondered about. I mean, I woke up with, ‘What if I did this for Youngstown? What if I did this for Gasser?’”

Dream Job

Bresnahan of Canfield graduated from Boardman High School and West Virginia University and following an internship, secured a job in corporate event planning in Chicago. She lived there for three years.

Betsy Bresnahan

Bresnahan is close to her family though and she found herself returning home whenever she had time off.

“Very quickly I learned when I was in Chicago that this was great for this period of my life,” she says.

In 2018, she moved home and first worked in event planning at a local company. That’s when she discovered that she preferred marketing. Through her job, she connected with her now boss at DGPerry CPAs + Advisors in Canfield and joined that company’s marketing team.

She calls it her dream job. “We are a top 200 firm and I am a team member of a two-woman marketing team,” Bresnahan says. “We support 180 employees throughout separate locations. I feel like every day I come into work I can make a difference.”

She plans to stay in the area for the long haul, intending to raise a family. She appreciates the lower cost of living and she likes the advantages of the location.

“You’re an hour from three great airports so you can go wherever you want to go at an affordable price,” she says. “With the Covelli Centre and the amphitheater downtown, we don’t even have to travel to Cleveland or Pittsburgh to see a great concert. We have these great acts that they’re bringing to town.”

Chamber Plans

Brenda Linert, director of government affairs and community impact at the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber, says the repopulation plan remains in the early stages.

“We’re reaching out to the YSU Alumni Association to see if they can help us get in touch with people who have resettled elsewhere,” she says.

Plans also call for a website and social media campaign, promoting the area with testimonials from people who live here.

“The message is pretty consistent,” Linert says. “The cost of living [is low]. We have lots of outdoor activities. We have Mill Creek Park.” It costs much less to purchase a home in the Valley than other places in the country, she says.

Bresnahan also points to the low cost of living in the Valley. She illustrates the contrast by comparing her experience with a friend who lives in New Jersey. Each owns a condominium and they’re comparable in size and features. But her friend paid more than $250,000 above what Bresnahan did. That friend commutes on a train to work but still has the expense of a car because she drives to the train station. She also pays $200 per month for a train pass. Bresnahan’s commute is only a few minutes.

Life Back Home

Slanina has now been back in the Valley longer than he was gone. Being involved in the community is important to him. “I’m drawn to things with momentum,” he says. “I’m kind of an institutionalist. I want there to be strong Rotary clubs, some strong neighborhood groups.”

Because of his skillset, he’s fortunate that he can live in many places.

Youngstown, though, has different attributes, Slanina says.

“The thing I like is being able to create things” like a neighborhood group or an ethnic festival. “If you want to pursue something, there’s the freedom to do that.”

In other places, there are monetary barriers or established systems that make it difficult, he says.

“People here I think are very receptive and open to someone joining and contributing,” Slanina says. “Now I am also saying that as a person of great privilege because there’s not a lot of places around here where I’ve gone and people have said, ‘Oh no. We don’t want you here.’”

He says that whenever he approached an organization with an idea, people wanted to engage with him. Still, there are things in other communities where he’s lived that he cannot experience in Youngstown, such as riding a subway.

Gasser shares that view. “If you’re looking for that connection with people and a place to raise your family – I know from my experience with a load of my friends who have moved here, that’s why they moved here: the social connections, the support of the community,” she says.


Businesses and organizations are supportive of new ideas, Gasser says.

“If you talk to business leaders in the community and you have an idea for a business or for an event, they’re just as excited as you are” as long as it’s a well-thought-out plan, she says. “People want to support people who are supporting this area.”

Alison Gasser

Slanina likes running into people he’s known his whole life and says that’s another advantage of living in his hometown.

Most of the people he grew up with have moved away though. And many of the people he’s worked with on projects and befriended have since moved away – some for jobs, some for relationships.

Gasser says the people in the Valley are what set it apart from other areas.

“They’re the most giving, caring group of people I’ve ever encountered,” she says. “It’s so cliché but they’ll give you the shirt off of their back.”

She recalls a time while living in LA when her car broke down while traveling a freeway. Other motorists were yelling at her and honking as she tried to push her vehicle out of the middle of the six-lane highway. She got a flat tire in the Valley recently and a line of other cars put their flashers on and checked to make sure she was OK.

“It’s that type of personality,” Gasser says. “I don’t think that’s a small-town personality. I think it’s the ethos of this area.”

Appeal to Non-natives

The returnees believe the area could be appealing to someone not rooted here.

“I think it’s what you are aligned to in life,” Slanina says. “I like midsize cities like Youngstown. I like visiting New York and Paris. But there’s an accessibility to this place that is very attractive to me. I think that is separate from my roots.”

He reiterates that you have to make an effort. “If you are willing to step outside of your bubble a little bit, I think Youngstown is an amazing place because you meet people who you connect to and who will see you, just as you are,” he says.

Bresnahan points to employment opportunities here and those expected in the future. There are large and mid-sized companies hiring and friends of hers, in the health care and engineering fields in particular, excelling in their careers.

“I feel like you can get a great job here and not have to fork over $1 million for a home,” she says.

The returnees have been questioned by some about their decisions to live in the Valley.

Sometimes Gasser introduces herself as being from LA.

“I got asked, ad nauseam, ‘Why are you living here?’” she says. That question even came from people she expected to promote the area. “I turned and I said, ‘Why would you ever say that to somebody who moved here, who made the decision and chose to move here?…’”

Gasser fires back: “I could buy a house. I can grow my own food. I was never able to do that in LA. I can go ride horses and I can take care of a huge business, a global business, and hang out with my mom and dad. This is the dream.”

Here to Stay

Slanina, Gasser and Bresnahan have no plans to leave the area.

Slanina wants to continue to do the work he’s doing but he wants to travel too. Gasser has never regretted her decision to come back. There are things in LA that you won’t find in Youngstown, she says, but the reverse is also true.

“It’s really about what you’re looking for,” Gasser says. “I feel more fulfilled here than I ever have in my life. And it’s because I’m going after something that I want. I believe in what I’m building.”

Bresnahan is glad she lived and worked in Chicago for three years. Living someplace else made her grateful for what she has.

“It was one of those moments like the grass isn’t always greener on the other side,” she says. “I’m so happy that I had that experience where I got to go out and do my own thing. But there’s no place like home.”

Pictured at top: John Slanina spent his first year of grad school in France.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.