Rx for NE Ohio economy: Follow scripts from Pa.

A recent analysis of economic malaise in the United States finds Northeastern Ohio’s economy lagging noticeably behind that of Western Pennsylvania. In its analysis of economic stress — a factor derived from unemployment, bankruptcy and foreclosure data — counties in Western Pennsylvania scored significantly better than those in the Mahoning Valley and throughout northeastern Ohio.

For example, the stress level of Cleveland-centered Cuyahoga County hit 13.6, far eclipsing that of Pittsburgh-based Allegheny County at 8.3. Stress levels for Mahoning and Trumbull counties stood at 14.9 and 17.1 respectively, compared to our Keystone State neighbor Lawrence County at 10.7.

The data reveal that the nation’s ongoing recession has dealt serious blows to our entire region. But they also clearly illustrate that Western Pennsylvania has better managed to weather the economic storm.

Economic development and political leaders in the Valley and throughout Northeast Ohio would be prudent to analyze and evaluate the stress data to determine why the state line divides the region so starkly in economic fortitude. Then, Ohio leaders ought consider mimicking some of the strategies for success of the Keystone State.

Diversification disparities

A leader in Ashtabula County hypothesizes that one source of the disparity dates back decades:

“We jump back 30 years, when the steel industry all collapsed at the same time, I think (Pennsylvania’s) industry transitioned from steel to other things,” said Joseph Mayernick, executive director of Growth Partnership for Ashtabula County.

Many in the Valley can recall years and years and years of sincere but largely wasted efforts to try to revive the steel industry here when economic realities convinced our neighbors of the futility of life support for the dying industry as we knew it then.

In Western Pennsylvania, the move to rebuild an economy through diversification took hold more quickly and more firmly. The Valley and our northeastern corridor of the state have been playing catchup, but it’s clearly not too late to stir up our pot with Pennsylvania’s recipes for success.

To their credit, U.S. Reps. Tim Ryan, D-17th of Niles, and Jason Altmire, D-4th of McCandless, whose districts border each other, have collaborated to promote a “Tech Belt” in western Pennsylvania and northeastern Ohio that they envision will create jobs in advanced services and industries throughout the Cleveland-Pittsburgh megalopolis.

In addition, Team NEO, a consortium of 16 northeastern Ohio counties, has been working as a region to benefit all member counties, including Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana.

Redefining the base

And locally, efforts toward redefining the Mahoning Valley’s economic base have gained ground. For example, Ryan recently secured $2 million in a bill for construction of the Warren Business Incubator, which will be used to hatch and expand businesses focused on clean technology, alternative energy and green building materials. Its model will be the Youngstown Business Incubator, whose success in hatching internationally recognized software manufacturer Turning Technologies, serves as one of the Mahoning Valley’s best examples of maturing to a more diverse information-based economy.

But as we focus on high-tech and green technologies, we cannot ignore manufacturing as a viable cog in our 21st century jobs picture. The Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber recently was recognized for its efforts to attract Republic Special Metals. Republic is building a $64 million, state-of-the-art specialty steel production complex in North Jackson. A preliminary plan to invest $34 million in expansion at the V&M Star Steel mill in Youngstown also promises creation of hundreds of new jobs.

As long as heavy manufacturing is viewed as but one cog in a diverse regional economy, its growth should be encouraged. But clearly, Ryan, Altmire, economic development groups in the region must continue to cooperate toward greater diversification, which tra nslates into greater security during economic slumps.

If that means borrowing ideas from the Erie-Pittsburgh corridor, so be it. Imitation, they say, is the best form of flattery. For the Mahoning Valley and northeastern Ohio, it may also be one of several tickets en route to a re-energized economy.

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