No winner in Chill-Can legal fight

Inspection last week of the giant building shells on Youngstown’s East Side turned up exactly what city officials said they expected.

Five years after many residents were uprooted, tax abatements were granted and construction first got underway on a research and manufacturing plant that’s supposed to produce the world’s only self-chilling beverage can, three large steel structures still remain virtually empty. There are no operations and no jobs. Now the city of Youngstown is suing the owners of Chill-Can, seeking $2.8 million for breach of contract. It contends M.J. Joseph Development Corp. failed to live up to its promises to develop the site on the city’s East Side.

Youngstown is right to seek answers. It’s just extremely unfortunate that it took a civil suit to prompt them.

As part of the lawsuit against M.J. Joseph Development in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court, Youngstown Law Director Jeff Limbian, lawyers for the city and a city building official finally toured the buildings last week.

Afterwards, Limbian said the buildings were incomplete. Specifically, he said Building 1 contains a cement floor, two restrooms, a conference room and some pieces of equipment that remain untouched in shipping packaging. Other than that, Limbian told our reporter he saw little or no signs of production or progress.

Buildings 2 and 3, Limbian said, are just “empty shells.”

The entire scenario is very disappointing because, by now, most of us were expecting the plant to be humming along with more than 200 workers.

M.J. Joseph had said the project, which broke ground in November 2016, would cost about $18.8 million and be in full operation by 2018. Now, though, it contends the work was delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. City officials aren’t buying it, pointing out that it was supposed to be finished three years ago — before COVID-19.

According to the city, losses are costing millions of dollars. Among incentives granted by Youngstown were $1.5 million in city water and wastewater funds, about $400,000 to take possession of 15 properties at and near the Chill-Can site and a 10-year, 75 percent real property tax abatement. The company already has received about four years’ worth of abatements, saving it about $125,000, according to city records.

In the meantime, an opposing civil suit has been filed by M.J. Joseph and its sister company, Joseph Manufacturing Co. Inc., attempting to stop the city 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.

Both civil suits are set for trial one year from now in the courtroom of Mahoning County Common Pleas Judge R. Scott Krichbaum.

Indeed, the looming legal battle is unfortunate, and it’s pretty clear that despite the outcome, there will be no true winners.

We can only hope this project serves as a reminder to elected officials in Youngstown and everywhere about the importance of thoroughly vetting projects and frequently monitoring work when a community has so much invested in it.



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