Monday, August 31, 2009

Why The Garden Club Could Destroy Youngstown

I Will Shout Youngstown points to a troubling rebuttle to the letter from Regional Chamber CEO Tom Humphries. Humphries should be commended for his leadership and his public rejection of the cronyism that is responsible for the protracted economic slump that devastated the region. Silence on the return of James Traficant is tacit approval of his criminal activity. I wouldn't invest money in a community celebrating a convicted felon. Most of the world shares my caution. Ever wonder why Russia struggles to attract foreign dollars?

I haven’t forgotten that we’re still in the midst of a recession that has hit low-income neighborhoods particularly hard. But new models of community development based on collaborations that go beyond “public-private partnerships” seem to be gaining traction — especially when they mobilize a broad constituency for change. ...

... Youngstown, Ohio, another “dying city,” nonetheless offers some important examples of social entrepreneurship. The New Deal for Communities program developed in Britain explicitly seeks to improve community cohesion.

The world of Traficant and those who would quietly ignore his return are unable to "mobilize a broad constituency for change." This is the crux of Sean Safford's critique in "Why the Garden Club Couldn't Save Youngstown". On the other hand, Humphries represents those who would move the community forward. The door is open to anyone who wants to take part in the economic revitalization of the region. It isn't a club or a list of Who's Who Youngstown. That this movement has upset the established the order of things has ruffled more than a few feathers.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Youngstown Diaspora: View From Evansville, Indiana

Reading the missive of president and CEO of the Regional Chamber Tom Humphries about relegating James Traficant to the past, I can see how far the Mahoning Valley has come over the last five years. Concerning the expatriate perspective, Youngstown still has a lot of work to do:

Allentown has largely rebounded through private investment, nurturing entrepeneurship and diversifying its economy. Youngstown is showing some signs of rebirth, but it is largely driven by public — not private — investment. A visit to the city in July showed that it still has a long way to go to recover the vibrance I saw there as a child.

I realize that Sean Safford's book, referenced in the opinion piece, is a sore point. Furthermore, the Youngstown native is asking Evansville, Indiana to choose between the paths of his hometown and that of Allentown, PA. However, the thread tying all the narratives together is the burying of the past. That includes the "vibrance" of yesteryear.

There are a number of Rust Belt communities, such as Evansville, that are well behind Youngstown. What Safford celebrates in Allentown is now happening in Youngstown. This is what congressman Tim Ryan represents and why Traficant is now an amusing anachronism.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Exporting Brains

Trying to stop brain drain before it starts is a futile, and ultimately counterproductive, exercise. More promising, particularly for Rust Belt communities, are helping expatriates return home. Norfolk, Nebraska has a useful tip:

“You tend to hear about the problems and think all the kids want to get out,” said Brandon Day of Norfolk. “The survey tells us that’s not really true.” ...

... “We give a lot of lip service to the problems of declining population and brain drain,” Day said. “What we’ve done is adopted this defeatist attitude, and we don’t ever take any steps to do anything about it.”

Day serves as a board member of the Norfolk Area Recruiters, a group to attract graduates from the Norfolk area to return to the communities where they were raised.

While the group’s work has proven to be successful, it’s much more difficult to wait until young people go off to school, establish themselves in another community and then try to recruit them back to the area.

That recruitment process needs to start much earlier, he said.

“We need to give them some ownership in the community and make them feel from the get-go they have a vital role in the community. . . . We won’t see the results for at least five years, more likely 10 years, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t happen,” he said.

That makes a lot of sense. The likelihood of return often depends on the strength of the ties that bind. One way to start the recruitment process earlier is to help graduates leave. Connect them to the out-of-region experience they need through other people who have left the area.

Even Norfolk has a diaspora, a community often not considered when touting the region's human capital assets. That's a huge oversight. A town alumni network can pave the way for career success and keep talent connected to home.

Grey to Green Festival

Since the Regional Learning Network graced my inbox this morning, another plug for the Grey to Green Festival:

Wick Park, Youngstown, Ohio
11am Keynote presentation
3pm Panel discussion

For more details visit the Regional Learning Network don't want to miss this!

Will Allen, founder of Growing Power and one of the world’s foremost experts on urban farming, is the keynote speaker at the Grey to Green Festival in Wick Park in Youngstown on Saturday, Sept. 12.

Allen, recipient of the 2008 MacArthur Genius Award and recently featured in the New York Times Magazine, will speak at 11 a.m. in the pavilion in Wick Park.

Allen will also participate in a panel discussion, “Economics, ‘Food Racism’ and Urban Agriculture,” at 3 p.m. in the Unitarian Church across from the park.

The appearance is sponsored by Grow Youngstown, Youngstown State University and the Raymond John Wean Foundation.

The Grey to Green Festival features entertainment, educational exhibits, children’s activities, “green” vendors, healthy food, a Farmers Market, Magic Carpet Theater, composting, artists, energy assessment activities, recycled products and a Wick Park historic tour. Wick Park is located across from Stambaugh Stadium on Fifth Avenue in Youngstown.

For more information on Allen, visit Or, visit the Growing Power Web site at

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Follow The Green

The picture is coming into focus. We are past the point of promising. The opposition has launched a critique:

[Van Jones, a Bay Area activist and author who would be brought into the Obama administration as green jobs czar in March,] talks up the need for a "green New Deal" that will "help our Rust Belt cities blossom as Silicon Valleys of green capital." But scroll through the websites and reports of the many organizations with which he's been connected, and one begins to suspect that this "green" commitment is less about nature than about welfare--for inner-city residents without the skills or knowledge to compete in a 21st-century economy, and for the professional poverty organizations that collect the money for government job-training programs.

That's in The American Spectator and the intent is to expose the green jobs charge as folly. Boondoggle or not, the money is in the pipeline. A lot of it will land in Tim Ryan's and Jason Altmire's Tech Belt. Pittsburgh is already basking in the glow of President Obama's love. Thus, the GOP is eager to find the flaws in the White House plan. This is a done deal.

The emerging US energy policy narrative will translate into a lot of jobs and, as fiscal conservatives would complain, federal tax dollars for Cleveburgh. Green doesn't just mean cutting edge alternatives. It also includes nuclear power and natural gas:

Earlier this year, President Barack Obama proclaimed that the US could "become the world's leading exporter of renewable energy".

His Energy Secretary, Steven Chu, is a highly respected environmentalist and the Obama administration sees natural gas as a transition fuel that can help lead this country towards a new clean economy.

Many in rural Pennsylvania are also optimistic. The gas industry is leasing land from local owners - there is good money to be made. But not everyone is happy.

That last sentence offers important caution. There are serious environmental concerns. But it also speaks to the scale of investment. The gas rush is on, at a time when prices are at all-time lows. As more energy demand shifts to natural gas, and it will, the fuel will become more expensive and profitable. This is why Obama is going all in on Pittsburgh. And this is why V&M Star is investing $1 billion in its Youngstown plant. The money is beginning to follow all the rhetoric.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Exal: Our Aluminum. Your Canvas.

Breakfast Briefing: EQT And The Natural Gas Industry in Western Pennsylvania: A Proud Past. A Bright Future.

On the heels of yesterday's post, some of you might want to attend this event:

Please join Murry Gerber, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of EQT, as he discusses how a rich history and new technologies have recently made it economically feasible to recover natural gas from the Marcellus formation; a resource that has the potential to stimulate the biggest economic boom since coal and oil availability sparked the Pennsylvania industrial revolution. As the largest natural gas producer in the Appalachian Basin and the 14th largest in the nation, EQT is well positioned to play a major role in the development of this rich local resource. It owns the right to develop more than 400,000 acres of Marcellus reserves and has the technology necessary to extract Marcellus gas economically and with a small environmental footprint. Development of the Marcellus is in its infancy, but if Pennsylvania provides a friendly business climate which promotes development of this resource the potential benefits are unlimited.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Energy Economics And Youngstown

Update: Read "An Emerging Giant: Prospects and Economic Impacts of Developing the Marcellus Shale Natural Gas Play". Quote of note - The Marcellus shale is the largest unconventional natural gas reserve in the world.


I've prodded my Pittsburgh readers of the Burgh Diaspora blog to pay close attention to the nuclear and natural gas energy markets. I've even offered a geopolitical primer to help those interested make sense of all the news. Via Knowledge Problem ( a must-read blog), an interesting tidbit about America's emerging energy portfolio:

While an early R&D effort died following the first Gulf War, Yergin said the interest today in energy technology is huge and will "only be further stoked by the substantial increases that are ahead in government support for energy R&D. Much of that spending and effort is aimed at finding alternatives to oil. Yet the challenge is not merely to find alternatives; it is to find alternatives that can be competitive at the massive scale required."

One point Yergin mentioned in our interview but not the article: the huge potential of so-called unconventional natural gas in the U.S. thanks to the coming together of a number of technology break-throughs.

"Only in the last two months or so has Washington awakened to the reality of unconventional gas," Yergin said. "There was no master plan here, no 10-year technology road map. It was just a question of finding a combination to pick that lock."

How is this relevant to Youngstown? The V&M Star deal between Youngstown and Girard is one of the lynchpins:

V&M Star produces steel pipe and tube for primarily the natural gas market and is contemplating spending nearly $1 billion to expand its rolling mill. For months, Mahoning Valley officials have said that acreage in Youngstown and Girard is considered the strongest contender for the project.

This technology makes the extraction of gas from the Marcellus Shale much more economical. V&M Star's substantial investment is indicative of the expected upside for this method of extraction, most of it happening in relative proximity to the Steel Valley. Furthermore, as regular readers of this blog should know, Tim Ryan is a conduit for federal R&D dollars in the alternative energy sector.

There's a boom coming. Greater Youngstown needs to position itself to take full advantage of the opportunity. We at GY 2.0 are already busy in anticipation of looming workforce needs.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Youngstown Newcomers

"Why would you want to move here?" Youngstown needs to answer that question. That's one among many lessons that New Orleans can teach the Steel Valley:

Cities with high percentages of natives have many positive characteristics, including "a strong sense of local culture, deeply rooted historical legacies, and extensive family networks, " said Richard Campanella, a Tulane University geographer and author.

But there are downsides, too. Such cities tend to be economically depressed and stagnant, Campanella noted, and as a result may have "an inability to attract outsiders."

Campanella's analysis describes almost the entire Rust Belt. Shrinking cities desperately need more outsiders. However, I argue that strong nativism has another upside, robust diaspora networks. Along these lines newcomers can learn about Youngstown and what the region has to offer.

At Greater Youngstown 2.0, our hope extends beyond reaching out to prospective boomerang migrants. We aim to attract newcomers with the same kind of opportunities one can find right now in New Orleans. But this project starts with the people already living in the Steel Valley, moving the region forward. Get in touch with us and find out how we can help.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Frontier Paradigms: Chaos v. Opportunity

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Vermont, I was enamored with the Russian Far East. My plan was to follow in the footsteps of Richard Feynman acolyte Ralph Leighton and explore the steppes of Tuva. The collapse of the Soviet Union ruined my chances to study abroad in Irkutsk and explore the wilds of Siberia. At the time, this part of Russia was my frontier ideal.

Given my recent experiences in Pittsburgh and Youngstown, I've developed a different concept of frontier. In doing so, I make a distinction between chaos and streamlined bureaucracy. Surprising access to power is not the same as the absence of power. Consider La Paz:

This new trend of 'cocaine tourism' can be put down to a combination of Bolivia's notoriously corrupt public officials, the chaotic "anything goes" attitude of La Paz, and the national example of President Evo Morales, himself a coca grower. (Coca is the leaf, and cocaine is the highly manufactured and refined powder.) Morales has diligently fought for the rights of coca growers and tossed the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) out of Bolivia. While he has said he will crack down on cocaine production, he appears to be swimming against the current.

Thanks to Foreign Policy's Passport blog for bringing that story to my attention. Head to La Paz if you want to openly snort cocaine without fear of getting busted. That might be good for a thrill, but it won't spur innovation and growth. Nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to invest in it. This is how is see the frontier in Detroit.

Youngstown is somewhere between Detroit and Pittsburgh. There isn't the stuffy, old guard you find entrenched in Southwestern PA. But the local government isn't AWOL, either. Come to think of it, New Orleans has gone from Detroit-like implosion to Youngstown-like innovation in just a few years. Anything goes Nawlins didn't do much for the regional economy. Entrepreneurial NOLA is a different world. This is how I see the frontier in Youngstown.

You have a good idea? Take it right to the top and make your pitch. Expect much more than just cheap real estate.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Detroit Versus Youngstown

Over the last week or so, I've spent a lot of time thinking about the urban frontier comparisons between Detroit and Youngstown. Detroit is the media darling of right now. But I think Youngstown is in much better position to take advantage of the ample political space a dramatic economic collapse creates. One reason is the respective size of each city. Sometimes, smaller is better:

Why did Pittsburgh win the iPhone App "space race" when Boston announced their app over a month ago? Is it because we have a younger mayor? No. It's because we're small. Less bureaucracy means more flexibility.

That's a good way to describe what I term "ample political space". Pittsburgh's power base remained largely intact during its dark years (e.g. Allegheny Conference on Community Development). There isn't a wild west opportunity in the region. But its smaller size, relative to Boston, might make it more nimble.

But if you really want to see "less bureaucracy" at work, then head to Youngstown. Given the compact development, almost everyone is rowing in the same direction. On the other hand, Detroit is unwieldy and chaotic. The city is big. Really big. Good ideas aren't likely to run into each other as they would (and have) in place such as Pittsburgh.

In Detroit, there is anarchy. In Youngstown, there is very little bureaucracy. That's the big difference between those two urban frontiers.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Youngstown CDA Communicator

Greater Youngstown 2.0 is happy to help the Steel Valley concerned publicize events and generally get the word out. The Youngstown Community Development Agency (CDA) has jumped into the world of social media with a blog of its own:

This blog is your place to read about achievements within the CDA and city. There's also going to be some topics that can lend themselves to a bit more regularlity. Expect monthly updates on board of zoning appeals, planning commission agendas, and design and review meetings.

It's also a good place to check out what plans the department has for future community development. Posting statistics about demolitions completed and properties land banked is obviously necessary, but these numbers aren't really noteworthy unless they are pieces of the greater whole, laid against the backdrop of a plan. So expect to find here not only a list of what the CDA has done, but also some thoughts on the department's long term goals and aspirations.

I'm a commissioner for planning and zoning in Longmont, Colorado. At our last meeting, we talked about community outreach and the need to provoke more input from residents. A blog is a great way to do that. I hope the people of Youngstown will avail themselves of this resource.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Blog Release: Grey to Green Festival

The second annual Grey to Green Festival will be held on Saturday, Sept. 12, 2009, in Wick Park on Youngstown’s North Side from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The entire festival is free and open to the public and will feature displays and information booths by green non-profits in the area, as well as vendors, healthy food, live entertainment, and earth-friendly activities for children.

As reported in the Wall Street Journal last year, Youngstown’s 2010 Plan has a large “grey to green” component, which provides for protection of the current green space in the city, such as public parks, and also encourages the positive use of green space that is created by the shrinkage of the city, for example, vacant lots created by demolition.

Grey to Green is designed to increase awareness of environmental issues in general, the grey-to-green component of the 2010 plan, and the revitalization plan for Wick Park. Located in the heart of the city near Youngstown State University, Wick Park is a lovely Victorian-era green space populated primarily by large oaks and ringed with a fitness trail, wide sidewalks, handsome old mansions, and broad avenues. The plan for the park focuses on drawing more activity into the interior, creating diverse habitat for plants and animals, and encouraging biophilia and a closer tie to nature in the city.

There will be numerous vendors and educational exhibitions at the festival as well as a Drop in Shop where you can bring your unwanted household goods, drop them off and take something else home. Most usable/working/non hazardous household items are accepted, however please do not bring chemicals, computers and electronics, gas cans, hospital, water, or sofa beds, hot water tanks, paint, piano’s or organs, scrap metal, solvents, tires, or trash.

Children’s activities will include a visit with Dora the Explorer as well as numerous arts and crafts activities. Rob Joki, and the Magic Carpet Children’s Theater will also be premiering a new play with an environmental message.

Adult entertainment will include various bands, acoustic performers and dancers. Brady’s Leap will be kicking off the festival at 10:00 AM at the Wick Park Pavillion. For the more serious minded we are very happy to announce that our speaker is Will Allen from Growing Power.

Wonderful organic food will be available from a variety of local chefs, and from vendors at the Northside Farmers Market which is collaborating with the Grey to Green Festival to festival to bring delicious organic food to festival attendees. Food will be available across the street from Wick Park at the Unitarian Church on Elm Street.

Information about vending or display opportunities is available by emailing organizer Debra Weaver at or by calling (330) 744-1748. The Grey to Green Festival may also be found on Facebook.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Don't Blame NAFTA

Blame Girard Mayor James Melfi. Blame the parochialism retarding economic development throughout the entire Rust Belt. If the Mahoning Valley continues to struggle, then the residents and leadership are at fault. If the region is to move forward, more cooperation between political entities is needed:

GSP is being paid $100,000 for the project, which is expected to be completed in early 2010, confirmed Chris Thompson, spokesman for Fund for Our Economic Future, a collaboration of foundations and individuals in the Cleveland region. Other supporters include the Youngstown-Warren Regional Chamber and Greater Cleveland Partnership, and the Allegheny Conference on Economic Development.

All are members of the Tech Belt Initiative, co-chaired by the Allegheny Conference, based Downtown, and the Raymond John Wean Foundation, based in Warren, Ohio. The initiative was formed last fall to reinvigorate the Cleveland to Pittsburgh region by building on collaborative efforts.

“We were hired to work with a number of technology organizations to identify a number of key areas the regions can come together around,” said Rich Overmoyer, GSP principal and director of its economic architecture practice.

The project GSP Consulting is working on is one to watch. But the Mahoning Valley seems unlikely to benefit, despite Congressman Tim Ryan's best efforts, as long as communities such as Girard continue to act out of fear. I am amazed how the status quo trumps a jump into an uncertain future at every turn.

A lot of lip-service is paid to various regional initiatives. Nothing seems to come of any of them. The Regional Visioning Project appears to be stillborn, flushing millions of dollars down the drain in the process. What can we do differently this time around?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Bringing Home The Brains

I'm back from my trip to Youngstown, where I discussed our efforts to fill the talent pipeline to the region. I think the city has a good chance to be one of the Cleveburgh corridor innovation hubs. Not only is the downtown compact and in close proximity to a state university, but it is also surprisingly vibrant. All the action is along one street, stretching a few blocks. That's about the sum of activity for the entire area, but compare it to nearby Warren.

Warren's downtown is attractive. But the CBD is lifeless on weekends and after 5pm during weekdays. Much of the action is strung out along the strip development leading into the city. In that regard, Warren is quite similar in urban pattern to most of America. As for Youngstown, it is rebuilding from the core outward. The strip development has been left for dead.

The challenge is packing the center with more brains, who would benefit from all the serendipity I encountered while visiting. The place is already loaded with the kind of quirky activity that Eve Picker celebrates in a recent blog post:

Hot in New York City, some enterprising developers came up with this “lo-fi” version of the country club on a rented lot. The ultimate low cost swimming pool, dumpster dipping is accessible to everyone with a plastic bag. This is the mark of a great and creative city. Ideas that would be laughed at in small towns are revered here in New York.

Youngstown is an incredibly creative city. James Pernotto (who has an amazing studio downtown) and the crazy scene at the Oakland Center for the Arts are just two examples of the energy present along Federal Street. I went to a show at the Oakland (technically one block over from Federal) late Saturday night and had a blast. The downtown has a long way to go, but there is a very promising spark lit there.

To take full advantage, Youngstown needs a novel approach to talent attraction. That's where I come in. Communities spend a lot of money and other resources on brain retention. Israel is committing 1.6 billion in national currency to bring talent back home. But even that somewhat novel approach is too caught up in the blood lines of the brains:

While Israel is trying to fight brain drain and encourage scientists to make aliyah, the Immigrant Absorption Ministry has recently decided to cut its budget for absorbing immigrant scientists.

As a result some 200 olim scientists were fired this weekend by the universities that employ them.

The Absorption Ministry runs a project under which some 500 immigrant scientists are employed in Israeli universities, with the ministry sponsoring a part of their salaries.

However, budget cuts for 2009-2010 have forced the ministry to also cut back on its support of the program.

Well, the government wasn't too strapped for cash when it comes to luring scientists back home. That's the wrong approach for a country trying to spur job creation and win the war for talent. The same goes for Youngstown. Some of the diaspora will return, but the future of the city rests on the backs fresh blood. Greater Youngstown must, and can, attract more newcomers. What will bring people here? Look no further than Detroit for the answer.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Urban Frontier Geography

Aaron Renn (The Urbanophile) wrote an exciting post about the urban frontier and its application in Detroit. Approximating greenfield economic development in Rust Belt cities is vital to their future. You might think of the Sun Belt as America's urban frontier during the 1980s. Migration to this part of the country was like a gold rush. But it isn't economic opportunity that defines an urban frontier. It is political opportunity, the obliteration of established power hierarchies and money circles:

Sarabeth Berman, a 2006 graduate of Barnard College with a major in urban studies, initially arrived in Beijing at the age of 23 to take a job that would have been difficult for a person her age to land in the United States: program director at BeijingDance/LDTX, the first modern dance company in China to be founded independently of the government.

Ms. Berman said she was hired for her familiarity with Western modern dance rather than a knowledge of China. “Despite my lack of language skills and the fact that I had no experience working in China, I was given the opportunity to manage the touring, international projects, and produce and program our annual Beijing Dance Festival.”

Ever toiled as an intern in the big city? In an urban frontier, you get to skip this step and move right into making your mark. You "bypass some of the dues-paying that is common to first jobs in the United States."

Of course, that is China. What about America? The best example is New Orleans. (hat tip Brewed Fresh Daily) The New York Times recently ran a great article about the urban frontier in the Big Easy:

Jon Guidroz, 27, is one of the entrepreneurs who was persuaded to move to the city. He grew up in New Orleans but was living in Massachusetts and working for Free Flow Power, a renewable energy company, after Katrina hit. “I wanted to return to help,” he said. But he said he did not see a strong business reason to move.

Then, last year, Sean Cummings, a real estate developer and entrepreneur in New Orleans, randomly found Free Flow’s Web site and noticed that the company had a Mississippi River project in the works. Mr. Cummings, 44, a co-founder of a group called Startup New Orleans, invited Mr. Guidroz to visit his offices in New Orleans at 220 Camp Street, a loft building called Entrepreneur’s Row. As an extra incentive, Mr. Cummings even offered to give him six months free rent.

“He helped me fulfill my dream of bringing this business to New Orleans,” said Mr. Guidroz, who moved back in January. “Until these guys rolled out the red carpet for me — immediate access to a substantial network in the city and state for getting things done, finding local investors — I don’t think we would have done it.”

On a smaller scale, the above is exactly what is going on right now in Youngstown. The Jim Traficant way of doing business is dead. Ideas, not deep connections and deep pockets, rule the day along with "immediate access to a substantial network in the city and state." I should know because I'm getting that treatment this Friday in Youngstown. Welcome to the urban frontier.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Expatriates Celebrate Youngstown

George Bundy is a successful Bay Area entrepreneur. He's also connected to the Mahoning Valley. Recently, Bundy got wind of the renaissance in Youngstown:

What.. is this a joke? Nope, seems that Y-Town is on a comeback.

But it's not 1979, 89, or even 99.. it's 2009. Steel died in this rust belt valley in 1977, this article should have been written in 1979, not 2009. But, disappointingly it took well over 30 years for area to realize that their one trick pony (steel) was not coming back. Nobody wished harder, the "Good Old Days" of steel would come back, then the Mahoning Valley. Unfortunately, during the same time, the world (and business) passed "The Valley" by... year, after year, after year. Lets hope they have ultimately learned from the past 30 years.
Gee, someone should have told me Youngstown Ohio was "Where to Be an Entrepreneur". I would not have left.. 20 years ago!

I'm sure Bundy would appreciate yesterday's post about the struggles in Augusta, Maine. Relative to many other shrinking cities, Youngstown is ahead of the curve. Even if it took more than 30-years to start the economic transformation process.

George, the time has come for you to return to your home. Help Youngstown mind the lessons of the past and grow into the future. The urban frontier is calling.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Stuck In The Past

The mills aren't coming back. Neither are the people. Augusta, Maine is beginning to come to terms with both these facts:

In May 2006, a suspicious late-night fire at the mill forced a reckoning: this once-mighty economic engine had become a skeleton of brick, filled with toxic chemicals that posed threats to the community and the river. To echo the writer John McPhee, who years earlier had witnessed the removal of Augusta’s mill-empowering Edwards Dam, it was time again for this city of 20,000 to say farewell to the 19th century, and perhaps to the 20th as well.

The global economy passed by Augusta. Twice. The problem is that the city did too good of a job hanging onto its productive history. Now, the last person out of town will kindly remember to turn out the lights.

What does the future hold for Augusta? Sadly, this story does not portend any hope. Reeling from the loss of industry, this city is still mourning.

Friday, August 7, 2009

More Kudos For Mahoning Valley

Imagine Greater Cleveland looking at Greater Youngstown with envy. Well, that is exactly what is going on. Why? The Mahoning Valley is doing more than just talking about regional collaboration:

“They kicked butt. I don’t know any other way to put it,” remarked Chris Thompson, spokesman for the Fund for Our Economic Future.

That the two Mahoning Valley projects claimed two of the three grant awards came as no surprise, Thompson said. He recalled a meeting early on in the process with area government officials, during which one of them told his colleagues that they would support any local projects that made the cut, regardless of where they were located within the Valley.

“It was clear to me that the government officials there had each other’s back, for lack of a better term, and there was a real interest in making government collaboration real,” Thompson said.

I'd bet Valley residents are more accustomed to reading about the dysfunction of local government. Collaboration between political entities is very much the exception to the rule, especially in the Rust Belt. There is something special brewing in the area.

Outsiders are already noticing. We've got more initiatives in the works. The worm is starting to turn.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

A Shiny New Life In Youngstown

The Youngstown Paradox:

I've been so excited and relieved to be reading on Youngstown blogs about the hope and energy of the "new vanguard" that is striving to re-invent the city; it gives me hope, as an outsider about to fashion a "shiny new life" here. Even more so as Youngstown starts to get outside attention, as with the August Entrepreneur magazine cover and article.

However, at the same time, there is so much about the overwhelming weight of the past and the destruction of industry in the region, and the way that Youngstown is an iconic symbol of the decline, that I wonder if I am deluding myself...

In Rust Belt cities, the weight of the past often strangles hope for the future. (See the Detroit News videos about the GM plant in Lordstown and the fate of the Mahoning Valley) Understandably, residents are jaded. That's why outsiders are important. We see the other side of the coin. Relocation breeds optimism. Even an empty glass might seem beautiful.

Whether or not we are deluding ourselves is immaterial. If we believe in a place, in its people, then we can do anything. Just so happens that I think that is more true in Youngstown than anywhere else.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Piggyback On Pittsburgh

One of the goals of Greater Youngstown 2.0 is to establish an infrastructure for better leveraging of publicity. The Entrepreneur magazine article is one example. How do we get that message out to prospective businesses and talent? Consider the logistics behind taking advantage of the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh:

Local leaders here are hoping to be more effective in getting out the message that Pittsburgh wasn't named the Most Livable City for nothing.

Dennis Yablonsky, the Allegheny Conference's executive director, said his staff was going to spend the next two months developing ways to tell the region's story to the world over the two-day convention next month.

"We need to get the message out about the Pittsburgh economy and the Pittsburgh transformation story," he said. "We're going to use that media attention to generate a pipeline of companies thinking about Pittsburgh."

There is absolutely no reason why the Steel Valley can't tell its story why the world is watching Pittsburgh. What brings Revere Data to Youngstown can attract other companies. Furthermore, proximity to Pittsburgh (and Cleveland) is a strong selling point.

Don't forget that 4 out of the 5 Greater Youngstown counties are part of the Pittsburgh Regional Visioning Project. Mayor Jay Williams is on the steering committee and the initiative finally settled on a name:

Power of 32
32 Counties, 4 States, 1 Vision

The Pittsburgh pitch is now much more than just Allegheny County.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Steel Valley Shadows

Tyler Clark covered it yesterday, but a message from a member of Greater Youngstown 2.0 encouraged me to give it a close inspection. I'm being asked for my impressions of a Detroit News production about Lordstown and the entire Mahoning Valley.

I would tend to agree with Tyler in that some of the more melodramatic statements sound like hyperbole. The portrait is one of Lordstown trying to avoid the awful fate of Youngstown. The only positive images are from a distant past. Those memories are holding the region back. There isn't a stark choice between glory days and the effacement of home.

While watching the interviews, I imagined being in the shoes of Richard Longworth travelling the Midwest and speaking with people on the wrong end of economic globalization. I hear workers and students struggling to understand the forces ravaging their way of life. What frightens me is the impression that Lordstown is somehow disconnected from Youngstown. Leave Lordstown and head in any direction and you'll find the same story. The same trials. There may be one Mahoning Valley, but you wouldn't know it from listening to its people.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Falling In Love With Youngstown

Following up on Friday's post, the skinny about how a cutting edge company ends up in Youngstown:

Revere Data LLC, with offices in San Francisco and Manhattan, will relocate its research and development operations to Youngstown in early September, said Jim Cossler, executive director of the Youngstown Business Incubator.

“They’ve been in town over the last nine months and have been engaged in their due diligence,” Cossler said. Five Revere employees will staff the downtown office when it opens, but the company thinks that number could grow to 30 by this time next year, he said.

The five -- most of them in their late 20s -- visited the area last weekend and “fell in love with Youngstown,” according to Cossler. They were especially impressed at the low cost of living here. ...

... Revere Data was struck by the low cost of doing business in the Youngstown area. “They don’t need to be based in San Francisco,” Cossler said. “They could conduct their business anywhere.” He also added one of the company’s executives has ties to the area.

Youngstown has something of value, something to sell. But the native connection is key. That's why we are building a diaspora network for the Steel Valley. Successful expatriates can and will help the region attract business.

I love what Youngstown can offer. Rust Belt culture appeals to me. Few shrinking cities can match the opportunity and access afforded in the Mahoning Valley. Concerning geographic arbitrage, Youngstown has a big head start. The innovation cluster blossoming in downtown provides a strong competitive advantage.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Youngstown Alumni Solutions

In a tight job market, college alumni networks are a great asset. Universities tend to be geared towards helping recent (or, soon-to-be) graduates. But that's changing:

The notion of helping out older alumni is spreading. In June, Lori Kennedy, whose wonderfully euphemistic title at Lehigh is “director of alumni career solutions,” gave a Web seminar for 40 schools about setting up such programs. In 2002, following the employment downturn after the 9/11 attacks and the dot-com bust, Lehigh realized that its career counselors, trained to help new graduates, couldn’t meet the needs of midcareer professionals. It created an extensive online and personalized career service for all graduates. “Last year we served 2,000 alumni,” Ms. Kennedy said. “This year it was 4,000.” ...

... ON occasion, the alma mater inadvertently offers a sip at the fountain of youth. Chuck Megivern graduated from Lehigh as an electrical engineer with a pocket protector and slide rule in 1974, when rowdier graduates were listening to the Doobie Brothers and Kiss. He spent his entire career at a Fortune 500 technology company, eventually at its plant in Burlington, Vt. Two years ago, Mr. Megivern began worrying about layoffs — just about the time his youngest child was accepted to Lehigh.

On the school’s Web site, he spotted the alumni career services program. Methodically, he worked his way through the online seminars. Over the phone, Ms. Kennedy gave him additional counseling. Last fall, a Burlington start-up,, was seeking a software developer. He opened Ms. Kennedy’s handout. “Page 30,” Mr. Megivern said. “ ‘Interview Skills.’ ”

Then, salary negotiations. “I kept making emergency calls to Lori,” Mr. Megivern said. “She would say, ‘Consider this factor, consider that one.’ ”

He started the new job in March. In a sense, he has come full circle, living something of the free-spirited life envisioned by many of his generation. The company has bean bag chairs in the conference room, a gym and a cafeteria with organic food. He bikes to work.

In June, 35 years after graduating from Lehigh, Mr. Megivern attended his first college reunion there. “I gave Lehigh a little money, too,” he said. “Not enough to name a building after me.”

But, Mr. Megivern noted, “They are getting a much larger amount as well — my daughter’s tuition.”

Institutions of higher education are recognizing the value of a lifelong relationship with their clients (i.e. students). Regions could do the same. Coupling with the local university is one way. But doing so isn't necessary. Labor mobility services for expatriates could pay big dividends in terms of economic development.

Ireland's Emigrant Advice Network is a good, albeit rare, example of the practice. It is a strange way to think about brain drain. Leaving home is a lot like graduating from college. You do so in order to tap greater economic opportunity. However, moving out doesn't necessarily mean moving on.