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Time to think ahead is now, or the future could be bleak



Published: Sun, August 18, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



Imagine if the answer had been no.

Anyone who was in the Mahoning Valley 25 years ago doesn't have to imagine. They know.

They know what it is like to hear that the Valley's primary industry is shutting down. They know what it is like to lose the kind of job that turned poor families into middle class families in a generation or two. Even if they didn't lose a job, they know what it is like to walk into church, the neighborhood store or a family gathering absolutely certain to see friends and relatives who had lost theirs.

They know what it is like to see the end of an era, the steel era.

Everyone else can just imagine.

Imagine what today in the Mahoning Valley would be like if General Motors had announced on Thursday that it wasn't going to bring a new product to its Lordstown automobile assembly plant.

About 7,000 jobs at the plant would have been gone. And for every job lost at the plant, another two or 21/2 people would have lost their jobs. Businesses would have closed by the score. No segment of the economy would have been unscathed.

Why now?

We don't ask you to remember or imagine all this because we're killjoys. We ask it because now, when the relief we all felt is freshest in our minds, is the time to fully appreciate how big a bullet the Mahoning Valley dodged the other day.

And because now is the best time to look ahead.

It is reasonable to assume that the future of the Lordstown plant is secure for at least seven more years, the typical life of a model run. And it is not unreasonable to expect that the plant will be a vital part of the Mahoning Valley economy well beyond that. It has been turning out what are known as J-body models for 20 years.

But Ohio -- and the Mahoning Valley -- must make a transition from traditional manufacturing to the manufacturing of the 21st century. The Battelle Memorial Institute, in a study for the Ohio Department of Development, says that the state should build on its manufacturing heritage by pursuing modern options. The report suggests that the state's future is in developing and attracting companies involved in biomedical and life sciences, information sciences, materials, energy, instruments, controls and electronics.

Nothing is easy

Making that kind of a transition will not happen overnight. Luring those kinds of companies to the Mahoning Valley will not be easy. The Valley must offer more than infrastructure, it must offer human capital -- educated and motivated employees.

Though this cannot be done overnight, it can be done over a matter of years. But the clock has already started, and the time to begin is now.

There will be those who say this can't be done. They'll say the Valley lacks the commitment of time, people and money or doesn't have the leaders to do the planning and pulling and prodding. There will be those who don't recognize that everyone must make some sacrifices today if there is going to be a better tomorrow.

If those people are right, if as a Valley we sit back and wait for what tomorrow will bring, then everyone need only imagine what will happen some day when General Motors says no. Or for those who were here 25 years ago, they can simply remember.




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