A month ago, we applauded Youngstown Mayor Jay Williams’ decision not to make the creation of a Joint Economic Development District in Liberty Township a deal breaker with regard to Wal-Mart’s proposed superstore in the former Liberty Plaza on Belmont Avenue. The 153,863-square-foot building needs water, and Youngstown is the only viable supplier.
Williams had wanted township trustees to agree to the creation of a JEDD that would take in the Wal-Mart site, but the trustees balked. Just when it seemed that the impasse would derail the project, the mayor withdrew his demand. He said he did not want to do anything to jeopardize the $10 million-plus project.
But earlier this month, Youngstown water was again at the center of a dispute involving Wal-Mart, and once again it appeared that the project was in danger of being shelved.
At issue is the city’s requirement, contained in a water-use agreement, that the worldwide discount chain guarantee 25 percent of the jobs in the Liberty store for Youngstown residents. The mayor rightly argues that he is simply following a 20-year precedent, and that Wal-Mart did provide such a guarantee when it was building its store in Austintown.
The mayor at the time was Patrick J. Ungaro, now the administrator of Liberty Township. Ungaro acknowledges that such a requirement was in place, but insists that he used a “best effort” standard.
Regardless, Wal-Mart made it known to the Williams administration that it was unwilling to agree to a job set aside, but officials pointed out that a significant number of the chain’s employees throughout the region are from Youngstown.
Just as the battle of words reached a fever pitch and Wal-Mart indicated to Liberty trustees that it was considering putting the project on hold, the mayor made contact with company officials and set up a meeting with them.
He did make it clear, however, that he has no intention of including Ungaro or the township trustees in the discussions.
That is his prerogative as the leader of the city which owns the water. But we would caution him about turning this incident into all-out war.
From a purely economic development standpoint, the Valley can ill afford a national reputation for being less than business friendly. The competition for jobs, even those that pay minimum wage, is intense.
The downturn in the national economy, coupled with the weakening of America’s manufacturing prowess due to bad policy decisions made in Washington, has forced regions like ours to take what they can get.
The fight over water is not good for the Mahoning Valley’s reputation.
In addition, Youngstown, which is facing major financial difficulties, needs suburban water customers. To think otherwise is to be blind to the reality that is the city.
With its population in decline and its commercial customer base stagnant, at best, the money Youngstown receives from all of Austintown and portions of Boardman and Liberty is crucial to the fiscal well-being of the water department.
Indeed, there is an opportunity to increase the number of suburban customers, commercial and residential, if Mayor Williams and his political colleagues in Austintown, Boardman and Liberty can come to a meeting of the minds.
A war over water helps no one. Cooler heads must prevail.