By Denise Dick
A new initiative aims to bring investment and small businesses back to an area of the city’s South Side.
The Youngstown State University Research Foundation, a nonprofit corporation and a separate 501C3 organization from the university, is working to create an economic development zone in the southern part of the city surrounding St. Dominic Church.
The idea is to identify people who are interested in starting small businesses and to gather investors willing to invest cash and lend their business expertise.
“We’re looking at it not based on assumptions that it’s a bad area,” said Pat Gaughan, a YSU business/community liaison and an instructor in graduate studies and research, referring to the neighborhood.
“We’re looking at a whole array of what can be done. How can the average income be improved? We’re trying to think outside the box and identify the resources that are available.”
At the same time, YSU students and faculty will lend their skills to the initiative.
“We need to encourage people to be entrepreneurs but also encourage people to make investments,” Gaughan said. “We’re looking for small deals.”
YSURF is working with area clergy to try to identify potential entrepreneurs interested in starting businesses on the South Side.
“I think it’s a good thing,” said Rev. Nick Mager of First Presbyterian Church. “It’s an attempt to give people an opportunity to utilize their gifts and talents in a way that is not only meaningful for them personally, but that’s also good economically. It’s an attempt to get people in the community to pull together to help and support each other not only personally and economically, but also socially.”
The Rev. Mr. Mager, who has met with Gaughan, doesn’t have any parishioners who live on the South Side, but he put YSURF officials in touch with others who do.
Those clergy will be asked to identify possible entrepreneurs — people for whom they can vouch.
Gaughan, who also works with the Youngstown Business Incubator, stressed that YSURF isn’t trying to duplicate what’s being done by any other groups or agencies. In fact, in some cases, it will direct entrepreneurs to those groups and agencies for services.
The foundation will also try to get investors, such as the Garden Club Angels, to pair with the budding business owners to start microenterprises. Garden Club Angels, an investment group started a few years ago, provides funding to various businesses.
The club formed after Sean Safford, a professor at the University of Chicago, released a book titled, “Why the Garden Club Couldn’t Save Youngstown: The Transformation of the Rust Belt.”
Safford argued that Youngstown suffered after the collapse of the steel mills because it was too reliant on a few wealthy families to be civic leaders for the area. Youngstown didn’t have social networks in place to draw the community together and create economic development ideas when it was faced with economic upheaval.
The economic development zone isn’t about charity though. Part of getting a project approved is evaluating its viability. If investors don’t believe a business will succeed whether because of the idea, the plan or the individuals behind it, it won’t move forward.
While YSU is providing the knowledge of its resources to the project, there’s no monetary investment from the university, Gaughan said.
Harry Meshel, a YSU trustee, voiced concern at a recent trustees committee meeting about the university’s resources — like students and faculty — being spread too thin with other groups’ endeavors and projects.
Chet Cooper, the foundation president, said YSURF would make a presentation to trustees in the coming months to explain plans.
The project also has an educational element as students of Gaughan’s are involved.
In 10 years, Gaughan said the group will be able to analyze and compare the Census data between now and then to determine the effect of the economic development zone.