By Jamison Cocklin
The retail industry is on the upswing in the Mahoning Valley, as large and small brick-and-mortar outlets continue to steadily open their doors here.
The industry is considered a primary engine of economic growth where sales at auto dealerships, clothing stores, restaurants and other general merchandisers help consumer spending flourish.
Today, Ollie’s Bargain Outlet, a 148-store discount retailer with a footprint in 14 states, officially will open its second Valley location in the Boardman Plaza on U.S. Route 224.
On Thursday, DSW, a national designer shoe outlet, will open on Doral Drive.
In Salem, the Stadium GM Superstore will host an invitation-only grand opening Thursday for its new 34,000-square-foot building.
“We went further and did more than General Motors asked,” said Mike Huddock, general manager at the store. “The business is just doing very well and we look forward to the future — it looks bright.”
This week’s grand openings follow a series of ribbon cuttings throughout the summer when The Valley Marketplace, Pat Catan’s, the White Fire Grille, Jack Perry’s Gastropub, ice-cream shops, fast-food joints and homegrown small businesses opened their doors in major retail districts from Niles to Boardman and in more rural places such as Columbiana and East Palestine.
According to the Youngstown- Warren Regional Chamber, approximately 100 ribbon cuttings and grand openings took place in the Valley at businesses of all kind last year. By the end of September, the growth was on track to surpass that number with 80 openings already completed this year.
“There’s a bunch of different things retailers look at. The population in Youngstown and in nearby areas helps to generate the sales retailers project,” said Gordon Gough, executive vice president of the Ohio Council of Retail Merchants. “They look at the operating environment, the unemployment rate, taxation. But most important for your area is the perception that the Youngstown area is bouncing back.”
Retail sales have been a mixed bag across the country in recent years. A report from the U.S. Commerce Department in September said they grew at a paltry rate of 0.2 percent.
And while consumer confidence has been strong this year, it still has remained largely flat since 2012.
Retail sales have increased since dropping off in the midst of the Great Recession, but brick-and-mortar outlets are increasingly competing for a share of the pie with online commerce.
Retail gains in the Valley, sources say, underscore broader economic growth here.
Although a number of factors have led to sustained growth, Gough said Valley retail activity has been partly driven by shale exploration and the economic stimulus and demand it creates for more retailers.
“Youngstown is a big enough market for two stores, and I think a second location will blend well with our store in Niles,” said Jerry Altland, vice president of real estate at Ollie’s. “If you look at most other major players, they’re in the same boat. Boardman is just a strong retail sector. It’s just a good market for us, there’s a great population and blue-collar people who have money to spend.”
Nearly 7 million people live within 75 miles of Youngstown, which is a major draw for many large and small businesses alike.
Sharetta Stokes, who opened Ms. Charolette’s Resale Boutique on Market Street in April after moving to the area from Los Angeles, said the economy is better here than on the West Coast. She said the cost of living is so low it made it easier to start a business.
Sales at Ms. Charolette’s have been better than expected, Stokes said, and she believes demand is growing in the area she serves.
Another factor that could be helping entrepreneurs is an improving credit market in Ohio and across the nation.
In August, the Federal Reserve released a survey that showed about a third of banks reported an increase in demand for commercial and industrial loans. The survey also found nearly 20 percent of bank respondents were more willing to lend after easing their credit standards.
Frank Hierro, regional president of the Mahoning Valley for Huntington National Bank, which is the region’s largest, said commercial loan balances at the end of the second quarter had increased by 6 percent across the bank’s six-state footprint compared with the same time a year earlier.
He said business owners still remain cautious and lending demands are “good, but not robust.”
“A lot of it is driven by the confidence business owners have,” Hierro said of retail and business growth in the Valley. “I would say for all types of loans, demand is much higher today than it was 12 months ago.”
Hierro added that a diversifying economy with manufacturing gains, millions of dollars in investments from the shale-gas industry, technology developments at the Youngstown Business Incubator and other economic factors will keep retail and other portions of the economy growing for the foreseeable future.