Thursday, October 29, 2009

V&M Star Rising in Youngstown

Imagine Youngstown as a destination for a number of people conducting business globally. What would they see during their visit? V&M Star has already thought this through:

Earlier this year, V&M officials approached representatives of Lien Forward Ohio Regional Council of Governments, an organization that takes tax-delinquent land and matches it up with new owners who can redevelop or landscape the property, and asked if they would help organize a cleanup effort.

“Our intent is to work with Lien Forward in the demolition of vacant housing, making green space and taking areas that are blighted and turning them into areas similar to what you see on Market Street,” Johnson said, where landscaping efforts have cleaned up some of the entranceways into downtown.

Among the first blighted items to go was an unsightly chain-link fence that ran along a portion of the Route 422 thoroughfare. The city recently removed the fence. The city is also planning to raze a former office building of Youngstown Sheet & Tube by the end of the year. The dilapidated building is located at the entrance to the V&M Star plant.

V&M Star attracts visitors from all over the country and the world who do business with the Youngstown plant, and the company wants to clean up one of the city’s most visible gateways, said Debra Flora, Lien Forward’s executive director.

I'll make a wild guess and suppose that the above is one of the reasons V&M Star is so keen to have its expansion within the Youngstown city limits. I'm reminded of the cozy relationship between Big Finance and politicians in Charlotte that sparked a boom in the foothills of the Carolina Piedmont. I don't mean that as a critique, although there is a risk of over-dependence on one industry. It is indicative of the business friendly mindset of the Jay Williams administration and the forward thinking of the Regional Chamber. Things get done.

Youngstown has gone from brownfield backwater to an abundance of greenfield opportunities. Outside of Texas, there aren't many cities like it. In the Rust Belt, Youngstown may have no peers. In fact, I can think of only two cities in the United States that sport Youngstown-like assets: Tornado-ravaged Greensburg, KS and hurricane-ravaged New Orleans. I see New Orleans and Youngstown as kindred spirits. At least, the respective economic revitalization programs seem to be on a similar trajectory. Again, I'll remind you of the lessons from urban China:

Being near the coast is a help in China, because of access to external ideas and because coastal areas were permitted to experiment with reform first. An intriguing pattern is that governance is best in coastal cities that had very little industry when reform began in 1978. Shenzhen now has the highest per capita GDP in China. The same holds in Jiangmen, Dongguan, Suzhou--all were industrial backwaters in 1978, and responded to China's opening by creating good environments for private investment and learning from outsiders. Cities that already had industry tended to protect what they had and reform less aggressively.

In a nutshell, that's the urban frontier paradigm and what makes Youngstown so attractive to V&M Star. The missing piece might be the learning from outsiders, but the Phil Kidd story indicates otherwise. Youngstown leaders are remarkably open to new ideas.

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