Valleys' hope is in jobs

HE RECESSION SWUNG THROUGH much of the Mahoning Valley like a wrecking ball.
It came crashing through Cold Metal Products' Campbell plant and knocked Steve Burnich out of a job he held for nearly 30 years.
The 49-year-old Austintown resident lost a $21-an-hour job when the money-losing steel processor closed the plant last August.
Today, he has two part-time jobs -- sweeping floors at Austintown schools for $7 an hour and stocking shelves at Marc's in Boardman for $6.50 an hour-- and has taken up officiating basketball games for $20-$35 a game.
Sometimes, he does all three in one day.
"It's been rough, but we're surviving," said Burnich, who is married and has a son in college.
He isn't the only one hurting:
UIn the last eight years, the Valley has lost 24 percent of its manufacturing jobs, which provide many of its best-paying jobs.
UPersonal and business finances are so bad that bankruptcy filings have set records two years in a row.
USpending by companies and local governments on new construction projects has dropped.
USome retailers say they are managing small sales gains, but others are struggling. Phar-Mor closed its doors last summer, and new car and truck sales in the Mahoning Valley have dropped three straight years.
What the area needs
What's needed, business leaders say, are new jobs and some hope.
"We need some new faces," said Mike Wilson, executive director of the Home Builders/Remodelers Association of Mahoning Valley. "We need more businesses to move into this market, and we're not getting new businesses."
That's tough right now because of the sluggish national economy, said Reid Dulberger, who oversees economic development for Mahoning and Trumbull counties as executive vice president of the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber.
A lot of companies have been looking around at sites for potential expansion and some of those have even started putting together financing, but few make it through to completed deals, he said.
The chamber assisted 19 companies in relocation or expansion projects last year, compared with 29 or more in each of the three previous years.
Hope is something Valley residents have more control over, said Steve Lewis, president of First Place Bank in Warren.
With General Motors upgrading its Lordstown Assembly Plant and new congressmen representing the area, Lewis said he senses a changing attitude among people.
"When I go out to meet with groups, I sense that there's a real energy building up in the Valley," he said.
Lewis, chairman of the chamber's board, said chamber officials and community leaders have been talking about how to bring about positive changes in the Valley's image.
"We need to take this energy and collect it," he said.
The key is developing a fresh, unified message to present to government leaders in Washington and Columbus, he said.
Susan Moorer, executive director of Leadership Mahoning Valley, said the struggling economy hit nonprofit agencies hard because many are having trouble raising money. Still, she is encouraged that some agencies are starting to talk about solving problems together.
"If we could combine our efforts, we could make a huge difference in the community," she said.
LEAD, a local program developed to build community leaders, is trying to make such a difference. Members, who are graduates of Leadership Mahoning Valley programs, have created a community council to take up various community concerns.
"They are trying to engage members of the community to get more involved," Moorer said.
Positive moves
Steve Halloren, general manager of the La-Z-Boy stores in Boardman and Niles, said he thinks the positive development news at GM and Youngstown State University recently will boost residents' spirits.
YSU is planning a new recreation center for students, building new student housing and joining with others to redevelop the Smoky Hollow neighborhood.
"I think that when you hear good things going on locally, that will give people some confidence," he said.
A boost of confidence is needed because shoppers unsure of the future have been holding back on purchases, he said. Sales at local La-Z-Boy stores have increased between 2 percent and 3 percent each of the past two years, much less than the 7 percent to 10 percent that was expected.
Many residents have good reason for cutting back on their spending, however, as several large employers have closed recently.
Warren steelmaker CSC Ltd. closed and eliminated 1,300 jobs in 2001. Phar-Mor closed in July, erasing 200 jobs at its Youngstown headquarters and hundreds more at its stores. The Cold Metal Products closing cost 116 jobs.
Manufacturing jobs in the Valley have been whittled to 45,000, compared with 59,200 in 1995. Much of the reduction has come as the largest manufacturers -- General Motors and Delphi Packard Electric Systems -- have scaled back their local work force as they become more efficient.
The total number of jobs in the Valley has dropped from 249,000 in 1999 to 235,000.
This decline is one factor that led to a 51 percent increase in bankruptcy filings at the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Youngstown in the past two years. The 5,922 personal and corporate bankruptcies filed last year set a record for the second straight year.
Contractors are feeling the pinch as the value of construction projects in the Mahoning and Shenango valleys dropped 4 percent last year to $671 million.
John Logue, executive director of the Builders Association of Eastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania, said he thought 2002 was a decent year because of the poor shape of the national economy.
Though manufacturing construction was down, one bright spot was in health care. Humility of Mary Health Partners and Forum Health are spending tens of millions of dollars to upgrade their facilities in Youngstown and the suburbs.
Logue said this year is shaping up to be a good year because of the GM plant renovation and the start of the state Route 711 connector project, he said.
Meanwhile, Burnich, the former steel worker, said he's upbeat about his future. He's hoping for better-paying, full-time jobs either at the schools or Marc's and eventually will receive a pension from his 29 years at the plant.
"One way or another, we'll make it. I don't worry about it anymore," he said.

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