Downtown is Techtown

By Don Shilling

About $12 million has been invested in creating a downtown Tech Block.

YOUNGSTOWN — Vacant downtown buildings that have been home to pigeons for decades are being torn down or fixed up in the hopes of attracting some higher-class tenants: software developers.

About $12 million has been spent so far to create what planners call Tech Block — a section of West Federal Street designed to be home to thriving technology companies. Planners are counting on securing more multimillion-dollar grants to complete their work.

Jim Cossler, director of the Youngstown Business Incubator, isn’t shy about predicting success. He figures the block between Hazel Street and Vindicator Square eventually could have four or five connected buildings that have several thousand employees. These would be high-paying jobs dealing with writing software for business needs.

“We are going to be a driver of the downtown renaissance. We are already,” he said.

He can point to the project’s first big success, the Taft Technology Center. The $6 million building recently opened as the home of Turning Technologies, which is moving its 130 local employees out of the incubator.

“We’re not stopping,” Cossler said.

He used to speak of trying to “graduate” companies from incubator, where they receive free rent and business services. That term is off-limits now.

Cossler prefers to speak of “accelerating” companies, meaning they go from a subsidized incubator tenant to a lease-paying tenant in the Tech Block. The incubator plans to use the lease payments from Turning Technologies and future growth companies to provide more business-consulting services to incubator tenants.

But more than money is involved, Cossler said. He wants to create a cluster of tech companies in which established firms advise startups on marketing, sales and financial issues.

“Holding every company and every employee accountable to that is very powerful,” he said.

Mike Broderick, chief executive of Turning Technologies, said the Tech Block concept is why he wanted the company to remain downtown instead of moving to the suburbs.

He said he’s eager to pass along business knowledge to smaller companies, but he also sees advantages for Turning Technologies, which had $28 million in sales last year. The maker of audience response systems has grown so large that it is looking to acquire or invest in startup companies with technology that can be marketed, he said.

Turning Technologies will look at incubator companies for some of those investments, he said.

To reach the $12 million spent so far on Tech Block, Cossler counts the Taft building, the $3 million the state spent in the 1990s to get the incubator established and the $3 million being spent now on nearby projects.

Part of this last chunk of money is being used to renovate the Semple Building, which is next to the Taft building. Plans for the three-story Semple include a first-floor deli or cafe, warehouse for Turning Technologies and offices for other companies. Money also is available to tear down two dilapidated buildings — the Armed Forces building and State Theater. The facade of the theater is to be saved.

Cossler hopes to have more funds by 2009 or 2010 to renovate the Wells Building.

Down the road, he would like to see office buildings replace the Armed Forces and State buildings. The theater site along Boardman Street is large enough to support a multistory office building. He envisions a park setting on the narrow strip where the building abuts Federal Street.

To secure federal and state funds needed for these long-term projects, Cossler knows the incubator will have to succeed in growing more companies like Turning Technologies.

“I don’t see our growth tailing off,” he said.

To replace Turning Technologies, the incubator has accepted two small software companies from Akron and Pittsburgh and is talking with 18 others. Cossler said he expects nine or 10 of those companies to be ready to move into the incubator in the next 12 months.

Another company interested in Tech Block is a software developer from Tacoma, Wash., which was founded by a Mahoning Valley native. The company has six employees and nearly $1 million in sales. The founder doesn’t need the normal startup services provided by the incubator but is attracted to the cluster of tech companies that Tech Block intends to provide, Cossler said.

People outside of the area started noticing Youngstown when Turning Technologies last year was ranked by Inc. Magazine as one of the fastest-growing private companies in the country, but attracting the Tacoma company would help greatly in marketing Tech Block, Cossler said.

“The tipping point would come if a tech company moves 3,000 miles to come here,” he said.

One group that doesn’t need any more convincing is Ronald Cornell Faniro Architect Inc., a downtown architecture firm.

The firm’s three partners are spending $450,000 to renovate a building that sits in the midst of Tech Block. They bought the John R. Davis Building for $16,000 from the Youngstown Area Central Improvement Corp., which owns many of downtown’s abandoned properties and is working with the incubator on Tech Block.

“We see it as a good location because of all the investment that’s going on there,” said Ron Faniro, one of the partners.

Their plan is to use the second floor of the 109-year-old building for their offices and rent out the first floor for a cafe or similar use. One of the partners, Paul Hagman, will live on the third floor. The other partner is Frank Rulli.

As someone with an interest in historical preservation, Faniro said he hopes their work spurs more private investment in downtown buildings. Many of them can be saved with enough money, he said.

“We thought it was important to lead by example,” Faniro said.

The Davis building wasn’t targeted for the Tech Block renovations because it was in bad shape. It had been abandoned for 30 years and had a huge hole in the roof for many of those years. Besides the water damage, the plumbing and electrical system had been stripped out.

The Faniro group took it as a challenge. The renovations feature a contrast of styles. The original hardwood floors and brick walls are mixed with modern color schemes and walls with unusual shapes.

“It’s pretty exciting for us as architects,” Faniro said.

Faniro said he expects the Tech Block project to succeed. He thinks a cluster of tech companies will provide high-paying jobs as well as a vibrant atmosphere downtown, he said.

“The brain power industry is being built here in Youngstown,” he said.

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