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If Trumbull County Diversifies, Can It Reverse Economy's Decline?

M.L. Schultze
A billboard sponsored by Zekelman Industries, owners of Wheatland Tube in Warren.

Manufacturing is among the first sectors that get hit by a recession, and the last to battle back. So for decades, a Northeast Ohio county like Trumbull -- built on steel and autos -- has struggled even when others have recovered.

Now, by accident and intention, Trumbull County is diversifying. 

The area still has steel, auto and other heavy manufacturing. But they’re far smaller shops than back in the days when more than 12,000 people reported for work at the massive Packard Electric complex alone.

But Albert Sumell, an economist with Youngstown State’s Center for Working-Class Studies, says there’s a whisp of a silver lining in that loss.

“We have become a much more diversified economy, largely because we’re much less dependent on manufacturing because manufacturing has already declined so much," Kenmore says. "Even if it’s for a bad reason, the fact that we’re more diversified now then we were means that we’re less susceptible to the fluctuations in the overall economy.” 

One path for diversification is taking shape on 300 acres in rural Lordstown, where the parent company of Marshall’s, TJ Maxx and Homegoods plans to build a $170 million warehouse complex.

The Lordstown warehouse promises a thousand jobs with the help of roughly $3.5 million in state Job Creation Tax Credits and a 10-year, 75-percent property tax abatement. Supporters include Republican Mayor Arno Hill, Democratic U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, and about three-quarters of voters in a special election in August.

Given Trumbull County’s nearly half-century struggle over jobs, it may seem incongruous that there was any opposition at all – but there was.

Neighbors argued rezoning 300 acres of residential greenspace is too high a price to pay for jobs paying $12 an hour. (TJX isn’t providing pay ranges beyond saying they’ll vary based on the job.)

Shari Harrell heads the Community Foundation of the Mahoning Valley, which has been working on building a cohesive community and good jobs in the Mahoning Valley. She says she hasn’t studied the details of the TJX project and understands there may be valid reasons for the zone change, but she has concerns.

"I don’t ever want to turn my back on the opportunity to bring jobs to the community, but how is it going to work? How are you going to get those people to those jobs, where are you going to find those people, what are the requirements, do we have what it takes?” Harrell asks.

Credit Lisa DeJong / Your Voice Ohio
Your Voice Ohio
John Montecalvo, 52, of Warren, at Packard Electric Plant 8 in Warren. Glass from the front entrance of the plant is shattered everywhere from vandals.

She says parts of the project seem to run counter to a regional approach to creating good and inclusive jobs.

“We have gone down the path of sprawl and incentivizing companies at whatever cost to build where ever," she says. "We lose green space, we leave empty buildings everywhere, we create more infrastructure when we can’t support what we already have. We really have to think about the concepts of job hubs and mobility and connecting everybody.”

Harrell says she’s seeing a small but growing number of young people tackling that.

Among those young people are Adam Keck and Sarah Braun, founders of Modern Methods Brewery on David Grohl Alley – a quirky embrace of the Foo Fighters founder and Warren native son. The brewpub is sleek wood, steel and brick, with 50-pound bags of local malt awaiting the next brew. Keck says they and their 42 investors are changing Trumbull’s conventional wisdom.

“The narrative was, ‘Well, we’ve just gotta wait.… It’s just a matter of time before we rope in another big steel company or another company that’s going to bring in hundreds of jobs,’" Keck says. 

He says there is an alternative. 

“There’s a wave of people who think it’s not going to be one big company, it’s not going to be one big investment," Keck says. "It’s going to be a lot of base hits.” 

Sumell says a growing part of the remedy for struggling communities is improving people’s emotional connection to place and to each other with things like the arts, safety, parks and schools. And he acknowledges communities most needing those amenities are often too strapped to support them.

“If you’re stuck in this vicious cycle, it’s hard to stop it," Sumell says. "But the corollary is, if you have the virtuous cycle, that also builds on itself.” 

The trick is slowing the decline enough to change direction, he says, and the TJX warehouse complex may be part of that.

When it comes to quality of life, some of Trumbull’s industrial past continues to pay it forward.

Long after Trumbull County stopped producing the Packard automobile, the W.D. Packard Concert Band plays on with free Sunday concerts in Packard Music Hall, thanks to industrialist William Doud Packard.

Though it’s rooted in the past, Harrell says experiences like this need to be part of Trumbull’s thinking about its future.

“We get so focused on what’s gone, what’s missing, what’s not there that we neglect to look at what’s good, what’s growing, what is here,” she says.