By ERIC PLANEY
SPECIAL TO THE VINDICATOR
Last week was a pretty good one for Slovaks worldwide. Thursday, President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin helped put tiny Slovakia on the map for a lot of people by having a meeting at Bratislava Castle on the Slovak bank of the Danube River. Before that meeting, President Bush addressed the Slovak people directly. He praised the country for embracing the sustainable economic development policies that propelled the country from the dark canyon in the midst of a reforming Central Europe to the envy of the economists and politicians from Warsaw to Budapest.
As there are a lot of Youngstowners who are of Slovak descent, I imagine there were some smiles on Shady Run Road the next day (as pirogies were made at St. Nick's and bingo played at St. Matthias). But instead of just having pride in the cultural connection, the people of the Mahoning Valley could use Slovakia as an example of how economic prosperity can be obtained where there is little be found.
There are some similarities between Youngstown and Slovakia. When Slovakia and its Czech neighbors formed one nation after World War I, the country had the seventh most powerful economy in the world (until World War II). At one point in the 20th century, Youngstown was the fourth biggest steel producer in the world. Then Czechoslovakia was known for its strong and advanced industrial base, as was Youngstown. As a result of its modern age prowess, the arts and quality of life flourished in Prague and Bratislava, as in Youngstown and Warren. While comparing the Communist era to the collapse of the Steel industry may be a stretch, the results of the two are similar. No longer was Czechoslovakia on the forefront of the world's economy. Youngstown and Warren lost their main industry, and therefore slipped away in output and population. It was easier to speak of all that was wrong than what was right.
Even as Communism collapsed, and Czechoslovakia was split into two smaller nations, Slovakia was held hostage by a nationalist leader who talked loudly and behind the scenes used racketeering to perpetuate his myth as a great power broker representing the people. Feel free to draw any similarities to any former Mahoning Valley politicians you may know.
A new day
But the light at the end of the tunnel is here for Slovakia. The new coalition government that took power in 1998, representing groups from all political views, came together to find a way to make life better. And as a result, foreign direct investment is flowing into the country at a rate greater than any of its neighbors.
There is a similarity to be drawn with Youngstown. Two new organizations come to mind that remind me of the new Slovak government: Youngstown 2010 and Team NEO. Youngstown 2010 is the epitome of people coming from all backgrounds with the common interest of forming a grassroots campaign to revitalize their city. Those who are active in it should be commended. Team NEO was formed with the understanding that a common voice among three areas (Cleveland, Akron/Canton, and Youngs-town/Warren) can do much when resources and strategy are pooled together. Slovakia does have its advantages that the Valley could never have. First and foremost, it is its own nation that can dictate the direction of monetary policy, corporate and personal tax rates (Slovakia's 19 percent flat tax is the lowest in Central Europe), and government fiscal intervention in a way that a local government simply cannot do.
But what the Slovak government did, that the Valley could emulate, is to understand its core competency. Simply put, the Slovaks knew what they had to offer the rest of Europe and the world. For them, it was skilled labor that was cheaper than Western Europe, and location, location, location. The result is that three new auto plants are being built in the country (by Germany's Volkswagen, French maker Puegot, and Korean maker Kia). Global service providers are setting up regional offices in cities like Bratislava and Poprad.
Time is right
Youngstown has similar resources, namely location. As the U.S. economy grows again, its proximately to half of the U.S. population (by way of two major interstates) can be utilized by foreign companies looking to locate to a receptive region. For years, the Toyotas and Nissans would only go where the unions weren't. But now, thanks in part to a smarter UAW, a window of opportunity is opening for a "Rust Belt" region to succeed in landing such a plant. This is where the active involvement in a community, by way of a Youngstown 2010 or a Team NEO, can be the method to bring prosperity back. Finally, Slovakia brought about true reform because its people voted in a group of concerned leaders who executed on a plan to better the lives of their citizens. As Youngstowners elect a new mayor this year, and the Valley's two congressmen are up for election every two years, it is crucial that the candidates have a plan that understands its limited fiscal resources and unlimited spirit of its people. It is further crucial that the voters hold them accountable for what they say they will do, and what is done.
X Eric Planey, a Youngstown native, is an assistant vice president, leveraged finance transaction business group, for the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi in New York City.