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Top 10 of 2021

A year of stories

YOUNGSTOWN — From the opening a new super retail center in Boardman to expansion downtown of a local brewer to millions invested to improve health care and distribution in North Jackson, business-related news in the region was wide-ranging.

At the same time, it was mostly positive with the promise of growth and future prosperity. So without further delay, here are the top 10 business-related news stories for 2021:

1. Winding road for Lordstown Motors Corp.

Most of this year wasn’t terribly kind to Lordstown Motors Corp., the startup electric truck company operating in the former General Motors assembly plant in Lordstown, but it appears the company has begun to turn a corner as of late.

It was in January when a developmental prototype of the company’s flagship vehicle, the Endurance truck, caught fire on its maiden road test outside of Detroit, and then in March, an investment firm known for short-selling stocks ripped Lordstown Motors in a lengthy report, alleging the company misled its investors regarding preorders and production schedule for the truck.

That report spawned several lawsuits. The company also found itself over the year the subject of a federal law enforcement investigation and an investigation by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission related to its merger with special purpose acquisition company DiamondPeak Holdings.

In March, the company hit a milestone with the production of its first beta vehicles.

In June, the company’s founder and CEO, Steve Burns, and its chief financial officer, Julio Rodriguez, resigned. No reason was given for the resignation, but the move came in tune with an admission by the company that statements regarding preorders for the Endurance were inaccurate.

Lordstown Motors’ President Rich Schmidt later left the company in November.

And over the course of the year, the company’s stock has tumbled 80 percent. It hit a 52-week low earlier this month.

It was in August with the appointment of auto industry veteran Dan Ninivaggi as chief executive the company started to rebound, movement that started in earnest under interim CEO Angela Strand, who was the first to announce the company was looking to leverage its biggest asset — the factory — to advance.

The company announced in September it had an agreement in principle with Foxconn, a Taiwan-based maker of electronics, to sell the plant for $230 million. In November, it was announced the sides a definitive asset agreement.

They also agreed to pursue a contract manufacturing agreement for the Endurance pickup truck and a joint venture agreement to co-design and develop vehicle programs for the global commercial fleet market

Closing on the plant deal is targeted for April.

2. Beverage can plant chilled

It was November 2016 when ground was broken on a nearly $20 million research and manufacturing complex on Youngstown’s East Side to produce a self-chilling beverage can. Three buildings have been built, but little more has been done, and those buildings largely remain vacant and underdeveloped.

It was this year the Chill-Can project found itself in court.

Youngstown filed a $2.8 million breach-of-contract lawsuit in June against M.J. Joseph Development Corp., contending the company failed to live up to its promises to develop the site.

Knowing the city’s lawsuit was coming, M.J. Joseph and its sister company, Joseph Manufacturing Co. Inc., both run by Mitchell Joseph, filed a May 24 lawsuit against the city to stop it from reclaiming a $1.5 million water and wastewater grant. That suit also contends the city doesn’t have any legal rights to money, property and buildings.

It was in March when the city informed Joseph he had 60 days to construct a number of buildings and hire about 150 workers or it would file a lawsuit.

City records from earlier this year listed two employees at the property. The business was to have employed 150 by now and eventually 237. Joseph had said the project was to be in full operation by 2018 to produce the world’s only self-chilling beverage can.

3. Excellence Training Center opens at YSU

The Excellence Training Center at Youngstown State University started as a vision to sharpen the Mahoning Valley’s skilled workforce, evolved into a $12 million facility and continues to develop because “it’s the outcomes that come from this building that are the key,” said Jim Tressel, YSU president at the opening of the state-of-the-art facility in July.

The 54,000-square-foot facility on West Commerce Street is considered the centerpiece of the regional effort to create a workforce development ecosystem to meet the growing needs of the region’s emerging high-tech markets.

The two-story research and innovation center has space for additive manufacturing research and design, automation and robotics training, CNC (computerized numerical control) machining classes, metrology and CT scanning, and industrial maintenance training.

In addition, the center has what’s billed as a “Foundry of the Future” that includes advanced mold-making technology and office suites that can be rented by industry partners.

Said David Sipusic, YSU associate general counsel for research and executive director of the training center, the center is going to be a place “where workforce, education, research and development and community projects live.”

4. Farmers grows assets

Late June was when it was announced that Farmers National Banc Corp., holding company for Farmers National Bank, was going to acquire competitor Cortland Bancorp in a stock and cash deal worth $124 million.

Early November was when the transaction finalized, putting the Canfield-based Farmers among the largest community banks in Ohio with more than $4.1 billion in bank assets and more than $3 billion in wealth assets.

The merger with Cortland, holding company for Cortland Savings and Banking Company, was the sixth for Farmers in as many years.

The move expanded Farmers’ reach into suburban Cleveland, where Cortland Bank has branches, and into the Akron area, where Cortland Bank has a financial service center in Fairlawn.

It gives the Farmers National Bank 48 locations in Mahoning, Trumbull, Columbiana, Stark, Summit, Portage, Wayne, Medina, Geauga and Cuyahoga counties in Ohio and Beaver County in Pennsylvania.

“We do M&A (mergers and acquisitions) … for the right reasons. It’s so much about the community. Shareholders are just one facet of our stakeholder base and the ability for us to continue to pay dividends and continue to earn and continue to give people gainful employment, really good jobs across the Mahoning Valley is so important to us,” said Kevin J. Helmick, Farmers’ president / CEO. “I can assure you anything we do in the future will have those critical values.”

Customers of Cortland will be brought over to the Farmers platform in February, which is around the same time Farmers will start to rebrand Cortland Bank’s branches and other offices under the Farmers name.

5. Meijer opens in Boardman

It was May 13 when the long-anticipated Meijer supercenter opened with much fanfare in Boardman at the intersection of Boardman Canfield and Tippecanoe roads.

The 159,000-square-foot building features grocery, fresh produce, bakery, meat and deli departments, as well as a floral area and garden center. Other departments include pharmacy, pets, electronics, toys, sports and apparel.

It was about a $20 million investment by the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based retailer.

In February, the company spent $415,000 to buy a 0.91-acre parcel at 965 Boardman Canfield Road — less than 1 mile from the supercenter, presumably for a gasoline station the retailer wanted at the shopping center site but was not allowed to have over zoning concerns.

The company hasn’t filed plans with the Boardman zoning department so officially, it remains unclear what Meijer might do with the land. It’s already zoned general business, which permits gasoline stations, but still must go through the normal review process and meet zoning standards, including stormwater, landscaping, lighting and buffering.

6. Penguin City brews growth

Remodeling work to transform the former Republic Warehouse downtown into Penguin City Brewing Co.’s new taproom and brewhouse began in August.

The company bought the building, 460 E. Federal St., in December 2020 for $575,000 and announced in May it closed on a $2.2 million loan for construction and to equip the taproom and production facility.

The warehouse filled two critical needs — it’s in downtown Youngstown, and at 32,000 square feet, it provides plenty of expansion space for the company, which has steadily grown since producing its first beer in 2018.

Penguin City plans to invest a total of $3.7 million on the project.

The transformation will happen in phases. First is a 10,000-square-foot taproom and a 10,000-square-foot brewhouse planned to open by the end of the year. A banquet facility is another phase. It’s projected to be completed by September. A restaurant also is in the plans.

The work will marry a metal / industrial aesthetic with modern safety and other features.

Earlier this month, work to install sanitary lines and electric was happening, and the new equipment was due to arrive by the end of the month.

Brewing is expected to start in mid January and the taproom is planned to open in mid March, said co-owner Aspasia Lyras-Bernacki

Also happening now are backend details connected to a planned banquet facility, including packages that would be available. Lyras-Bernacki said the plan is to start accepting bookings for January 2023.

Penguin City’s goal is put Youngstown on the map in the beer making industry, much like Great Lakes is to Cleveland.

“In the state of Ohio, we want people to recognize Youngstown as a place that makes good beer,” she said.

In April, the company began distribution in five counties in western Pennsylvania. In October, it began distributing in West Virginia. And with the new brewhouse, Penguin City can expand aggressively further into Pennsylvania and other parts of Ohio.

7. Millions invested

Although purely ceremonial, earth moved in October at Akron Children’s Hospital Mahoning Valley signaled a tremendous investment the health care provider is making at the Beeghly campus in Boardman.

Akron Children’s is investing $31 million to create a new emergency department, a pivotal need for the system that has seen its emergency department patient load there rise to an average of 125 to 135 patients per day.

The department was built in 2008 with capacity to treat 80 patients per day.

“We’re not just building an expansion of the emergency room. We’re actually tripling the size and creating a whole new facility for patients of the (Mahoning) Valley,” said Paul Olivier, vice president, Akron Children’s Hospital Mahoning Valley Enterprises, said at a groundbreaking ceremony Oct. 13.

The project is highlighted by adding more treatment rooms, from 17 to 23 and 34,700 square feet to the existing 9,600-square-foot emergency department. The number of behavioral health treatment and triage rooms will also increase.

In North Jackson, New York City-based fashion retailer Macy’s is pumping $30 million into its warehouse in the township to remake a portion of it into a fulfillment center for consumer online orders.

The building is 600,000 square feet. About 380,000 square feet will be converted for the expanding fulfillment process.

Macy’s plans to fill more than 400 core positions this year at the center that before the renovation employed 75. Wages start at $16 to $20 per hour depending on the role and skill set.

One of the factors in choosing North Jackson for remodel was the workforce, according to a company official.

8. Ultium Cells / Ohio Edison

It was in February when the last of the 14,000 steel beams that make up the skeleton of the Ultium Cells electric-vehicle battery-cell factory was set into place, marking a major milestone in the construction of the 2.8 million-square-foot factory in Lordstown.

Now, exterior construction is 95 complete. The building is enclosed and process equipment is being installed, said Brooke Waid, Ultium Cells spokeswoman. Remaining exterior work includes utilities, lobby entrance, perimeter fencing, final paving and landscaping and traffic light on Tod Avenue.

Equipment installation is about 15 percent complete. Equipment installation will be phased through 2023 for the multiple cell assembly lines.

Production is on track to begin in August, Waid said.

The $2.3 billion plant on 158 acres is a joint venture between General Motors and South Korea’s LG Energy Solution to mass produce battery cells for electric vehicles. It is adjacent to GM’s former assembly complex.

The facility will employ upward of 1,000 at full capacity.

Waid said the company had about 150 employees at the end of 2021 and anticipates to be at 600 by the end of 2022 and at more than 1,100 by end of 2023. Most recently, Ultium began hiring production and quality and maintenance employees.

Related, Akron-based FirstEnergy is investing $32 million in Lordstown, part of which will be spent on a high-voltage power line to meet the future needs of Ultium Cells. The 3.5-mile line will connect a substation on Highland Avenue to a new substation, called Magellan, immediately behind the factory on Tod Avenue SW.

The cost for this phase — phase two of a two-part project — is about $12 million. Work on it is expected to be completed in April.

The $20 million first phase was construction of a new more than 100,000-square-foot substation behind the Tod Avenue plant and a half-mile, high-voltage transmission line that connects to an existing high-voltage line nearby.

Phase one was completed in the spring.

“The idea was to provide an extra source of power to meet the high-energy demands of the Ultium Cells facility,” said FirstEnergy spokeswoman Lauren Siburkis. The substation on Highland would have met the plant’s needs, “but as production ramps up and they need more energy in the years to come, this was a way for them to not only have backup power sources, but meet their energy demands for the entire future here in Lordstown.”

When complete, the new line also will bolster the regional transmission system to benefit thousands of residents and businesses in Lordstown.

“While the intention for this project is to support Ultium Cells, it has benefits for about 15,000 residents and businesses in the Lordstown area because what this will do, it will provide a backup power feed for all of the customers in the area in the event their primary line is taken out of service,” Siburkis said.

9. Delphi retirees keep up their best fight

The group of Delphi retirees fighting for their lost pensions came into the year hopeful a review of their situation by the Biden administration would result in the restoration of their retirement benefits, but ultimately that would not be the case.

It wasn’t until August the administration responded — and after the urging by lawmakers — that it was determined congressional action was needed to restore the pensions, lost when the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation took over the pensions when Delphi went bankrupt in 2009.

But even before that, the group — the Delphi Salaried Retirees Association — asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case they brought after the PBGC slashed their pensions, some by as much as 70 percent.

So far, attorneys general from six states, including Ohio’s Dave Yost, and 17 members of Congress, including U.S. Reps. Tim Ryan, D-Howland, and Bill Johnson, R-Marietta, and U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, have filed briefs with the urging for the review.

In October, Ryan said he, U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, also among the 17, and other lawmakers who represent areas with affected constituents taking a legislative approach to fix the problem and restore the pensions.

The retirees group took their fight to the Supreme Court after an appeals court sided with a lower federal court judge’s decision in Michigan to dismiss the case against the PBGC.

10. Southern Park Mall owner files bankruptcy

The financial trouble for Washington Prime Group, the Columbus-based owner / operator the Southern Park Mall, began in February when the company missed a $23.2 million loan payment.

It was able to secure forbearance agreements with creditors and noteholders that held a large amount of the company’s debt, but was unable to fend off the inevitable and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in June.

It emerged from bankruptcy in October a private company, having delisted its stock from the New York Stock Exchange. It also came out leaner and more stable, having reduced its debt by nearly $1 billion and in a stronger liquidity position.

And, Washington Prime never wavered on a $30 million investment at the mall, the centerpiece is DeBartolo Commons, a 4-acre outdoor athletic and entertainment green space and event venue on the south side of the mall that opened in October.

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