As the Mahoning Valley sets out to rewrite its narrative and continue with the work of diversifying its economy, area experts say it will become increasingly important to strengthen all local industries and build a better marketplace that doesn’t rely on a single sector.
Thus far, that goal is on track. But it remains difficult to overlook the economic boom being brought on by shale-gas activity and the underlying businesses cropping up to support it.
“When Youngstown went through the steel meltdown, it was a one-trick pony,” said Mike Conway, executive director of the Mahoning Valley Economic Development Corp. “Our efforts should be focused on developing, not necessarily in support of shale activity, but in conjunction with it.”
To be sure, natural gas is stirring up more commerce statewide. A widely quoted report released earlier this year by the Ohio Shale Coalition predicted that by 2014, Utica shale activity alone will earn more than $4.8 billion in revenue and generate more than 65,000 jobs.
Aside from such growth, there are many sectors within the Valley’s economy experiencing new measures of independent success.
Sarah Boyarko, vice president of economic development, business retention and expansion at the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber, said a number of projects in the manufacturing sector demonstrate the uptick in area economic activity.
Boyarko added that the city is better capitalizing on its geographic location as a hub between Pittsburgh and Cleveland. She pointed to the more than $30 million Anderson-Dubose facility, a warehouse distribution center in Lordstown, as evidence.
Successful efforts are under way at the chamber to boost international trade for manufacturers as well.
In 2011, Valley economic groups reported that 104 new projects resulted in $272.8 million in new investments. Although 30 percent of 2011’s expansion occurred in shale- related companies, the rest occurred outside that industry.
Health care remains a strong employer for the Valley, and food service saw an increase in 2011, accounting for 22 percent of the Valley economic expansion reported by development groups.
Low lease prices and a swath of rare industrial complexes have made the region attractive to outside business interests, Boyarko said.
At the moment, regional growth looks so promising that it’s difficult to identify one sector of the local economy that’s outperforming another, Conway said.
“We’re seeing growth in our loan fund with everything from grocery stores to manufacturing,” he said of his organization’s efforts. “All of our loans come with a job-creation requirement, too. We’ve issued 32 loans this year worth a little under $4.4 million; between those companies, about 132 jobs will be created.”
Conway also noted that regional rail activity is up by 10 percent, meaning manufacturers have more goods to transport. Small-business activity is healthy as well.
Most experts agreed that a good deal of the diversification taking place throughout the local economy is due to shale activity. But Daniel Rossi, president of FEIC Financial, a wealth-management firm in Youngstown, had a different perspective.
“This region simply could not have handled the shale boom shortly after steel left the area,” he said. “At that time, the economy was too weak. The economic infrastructure in place today is providing stability for the shale activity and attracting many other investment opportunities.”