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Top Business Stories of 2019: Valley bounces back

Despite losses, there is still a lot to celebrate

Business news in 2019 in Trumbull and Mahoning counties can be summed up by devastating gut punches that knocked the wind out of the local economy and equally monumental announcements and developments to breathe new life into the area.

With little more hesitation, the top 10 business stories in the Mahoning Valley last year:

1. GM / LG Chem announce humongous investment

It was just what Trumbull and Mahoning counties needed after watching General Motors end automobile production in March after 53 years in Lordstown.

It could be perhaps the largest ever economic shot in the arm in the region — $2.3 billion committed by GM and South Korea’s LG Chem toward an electric vehicle battery-cell manufacturing facility near Lordstown. It’s expected the plant will employ about 1,000 and be a vital gear in GM’s plan toward electrification of 20 vehicles over the next several years.

It also sets up the Mahoning Valley — along with the planned production of an electric pickup truck at GM’s old plant — to be out front of an industry with huge growth potential.

“This is the greatest opportunity for our community in decades because of the fact that millions and millions of electric vehicles are going to be made somewhere in the world over the next 10 years and right now, China dominates about 50 percent of that market,” said U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan.

“It’s huge because of the growth potential. For a long time our community, we were chasing smokestacks, we were chasing things on the decline,” said Ryan, D-Howland. “These industries are going to boom over the next couple of decades.”

Said Ohio Lt. Gov. Jon Husted, “I can’t tell you how much this is going to mean for the future of Ohio. At least it gives us the potential to be in the game of electrically-powered vehicles and gives the Mahoning Valley a shot at developing a real competency cluster in this space, with what is going on there and the potential of Lordstown Motors.”

The announcement was made in December.

2. Cruze’n off, but enduring

Lordstown Motors Corp. bought the 6.2 million-square-foot automobile assembly plant in Lordstown from General Motors for $20 million in November, about a year after GM announced it was idling Lordstown and other plants in a shift toward more truck, SUV and electric vehicle production.

In March, the last Chevrolet Cruze rolled off the production line at the plant. But Lordstown Motors has plans for production of the Endurance, a battery-powered pickup truck, to begin in late 2020.

The plant’s closure March 6 cost about 1,500 people their jobs. About 1,000 were able to transfer to GM plants elsewhere in the United States.

There was hope United Auto Workers bargainers could negotiate a new product for the plant in contract talks this year, but that hope died in October when the automaker and the UAW came to terms on a new agreement that allowed GM to formally close the facility.

Lordstown Motors officials have said at the start of production, the plant will employ about 400 people, but plans are, as production increases, to employ 5,000 on three shifts.

The company is partnering with Workhorse Group to use its technology in the production of the truck. In exchange, Workhorse holds 10 percent of the company. The agreement with Workhorse also provides the opportunity to transfer 6,000 existing preorders received by Workhorse for its commercial pickup, the W-15 prototype, to Lordstown Motors.

3. Stop the press

After 150 years of covering news in the Mahoning Valley, The Vindicator in Youngstown announced in June its last newspaper would be Aug. 31.

The news shocked residents of Trumbull and Mahoning counties, who had been accustomed to reading the newspaper, a victim of dwindling circulation and revenue. It had been operating in the red for 20 of the last 22 years, drawing down on a rainy day fund to stay alive.

The closure meant about 144 employees and 250 carriers lost their jobs.

In August, the Tribune Chronicle announced it was stepping up to fill the void by publishing a new Vindicator edition of the Tribune Chronicle that launched Sept. 1.

In doing so, the Tribune Chronicle acquired rights to The Vindicator nameplate, its list of subscribers and the Vindy.com internet domain.

“We are extremely pleased and honored to be able to preserve the long-respected name of the newspaper that has served this region for a century-and-a-half,” said Charles Jarvis, publisher of the Tribune Chronicle.

4. Distribution hub at home in Lordstown

The first of the massive walls that is taking shape into HomeGoods’ regional distribution center in Lordstown was erected in early October after weeks of preparation at the site at the intersection of Hallock Young and Bailey roads.

Construction of the massive warehouse for the off-price home fashion and decor retailer began in April, a month after TJX finalized the purchase of 290 acres of vacant land for the 1.2-million-square center. The land deals were sealed more than a year after the company announced its plans to build in the village.

Getting to this point included a special election in August 2018 forced by opponents of a zone change of the property to try to overturn the change and then a lawsuit.

The $140 million to $170 million project will bring about 1,000 new jobs to Lordstown and have a payroll of about $27 million annually.

5. Happy golden anniversary

The Eastwood Mall Complex celebrated a tremendous milestone in September with its 50th anniversary of doing business.

The celebration was capped by a gala event in the mall at which homage was paid to close friends and founders of the Cafaro Company and DeBartolo Corp., William M. Cafaro and Boardman developer Edward DeBartolo Sr.

“They were both driven men and we’re going to pay homage to their memory because they were really pioneers in the shopping center industry,” said Joe Bell, director of corporate communications for mall owner Cafaro Company “They had a great deal of influence on the way shopping centers were developed in America. They were honored by their peers for it and in a lot ways they changed the way America shopped.”

6. Amazon delivers

Global retailer Amazon opened a last-mile delivery center July 23 at Youngstown Commerce Park in a 43,00-square-foot building that was once a ground facility for shipping giant FedEx.

It employs about 200 full- and part-time workers who are Amazon associates.

The facility, Amazon’s fourth delivery station in Ohio, enables Amazon to “have last-mile capability to get packages and shipments to our customers faster,” said Sean Healy, regional operations director for Amazon a day in July the media was invited to tour the shipping hub.

7. Falcon Transport grounded

The Austintown-based trucking company that had a long history in the Mahoning Valley abruptly called it quits. Company employees, including some who were truck drivers on the road, were told of of the news April 27 via email. Hundreds of employee were impacted by the closure.

The closure spawned two federal lawsuits that claimed the company violated the federal 60-day mass layoff notice requirement, which is intended to give workers sufficient time to find other work or retraining before losing their jobs.

The two lawsuits were consolidated in October.

8. Still serving up meals

The future of Perkins restaurants in the Mahoning Valley was cloudy when their operator filed for bankruptcy in July.

The family-style diners in Warren, Niles, Austintown and Boardman made the cut and survived, having been purchased by Pennsylvania-based JDK Management from 5171 Campbells Land Co., also in Pa., in its bankruptcy proceeding.

The Canfield restaurant closed.

JDK, the largest franchisee of Perkins, planed to invest $4 million at the local restaurants and nine others on a major remodel.

9. When one cabinet door closes, another opens

Masco Corporation of Michigan, the parent company of kitchen and bathroom cabinet maker Kraftmaid, announced in June it was trying to sell its window and cabinetry divisions.

It announced in November that Kraftmaid, which has production facilities in Ashtabula and Geauga counties and employs a great deal of Trumbull County residents, was sold for $1 billion to ACProducts Inc. of Texas.

KraftMaid operates two production facilities in Middlefield, one on state Route 608 and the other on Industrial Parkway, that employ about 2,000 people. A third local KraftMaid plant is on Grand Valley Avenue in Orwell, but it’s unclear how many are employed at the facility.

The sale is expected to close in the first quarter of 2020.

10. Vista slams window shut on production

Two weeks into 2019, Vista Window Company in Lordstown suddenly shut its doors and closed out employees, who learned of the closure from a sign posted to the door of the Henn Parkway SW facility.

Eighty-seven employees were let go when the company closed. Twenty-three others were laid off about a month prior.

A former employee sued the company in federal court, claiming it violated the federal act of giving 60-days notice of a mass layoff. The suit settled in June with the company agreeing to pay more than $680,000 to employees and their attorneys.

Vista made vinyl replacement windows and patio doors.

rselak@tribtoday.com