In-depth Community Feature: Where once economy faltered, now a case for optimism in Youngstown, OH

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As a native of Youngstown, Ohio, I have always been invested in the success and stability of my hometown community. I’m proud of the city’s culture and the trademarks that make it unique, such as its vibrant art scene, the beautiful vistas in Mill Creek MetroParks, and our top-notch Italian cuisine (MVR and Wedgewood Pizza, I’m looking at you!).

Yet, despite these positive outlooks, Youngstown’s outward reputation is marked by a slew of negative associations: corrupt politicians, high crime rates, a failing school system, and rampant, widespread urban decay. As was the case with many cities in the Rust Belt, Youngstown’s economy once supported itself solely on the success of its local steel industry, the collapse of which, in the 1970’s, triggered an array of economic and infrastructural problems that continue to affect the city today. Still, as things are improving in Youngstown, and optimism about the city’s future grows, it is tempting to embrace any and all opportunities that seem capable of offering a new surge of success and stability to the city and its residents. With the discovery of the Marcellus & Utica shale reserve, those with interests in natural gas have centered their focus around Northeastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania, bringing lots of economic attention to the Youngstown area. But before land rights are signed away to the drillers, its important we consider the dangers of once again relying on a strategy for Youngstown’s success that is dependent on a single industry. The story of Youngstown’s decline carries important lessons we must regard considerately as we invest in possibilities for the city’s future.

Some historical context:

In the 1920s, Youngstown was the second largest producer of steel in the nation (Pittsburgh being the first), and the city reaped the benefits of low unemployment, a robust economy, and a seemingly bright future. The thriving steel industry was very accommodating to working class Americans, providing steady employment to thousands of workers and putting food on the table for their families. Before the start of the Great Depression, Youngstown’s population reached approximately 170,000 people . But, as American manufacturing jobs became increasingly outsourced, the vibrancy and success of Youngstown’s steel industry plummeted, pulling the rest of the city down with it. In September 1977, on what’s commonly known in Youngstown as “Black Monday”, the Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company suddenly announced that it would be closing its doors, leaving 5,000 workers without work or any prospective job opportunities. This was just the beginning of a chronic downward trend for Youngstown, as many other local mills and businesses in the area would struggle to survive, and eventually fail, in a marketplace where demand faltered with the collective loss of income. It seemed that as the steel industry abandoned Youngstown, so did much of its upper and middle class residents. This mass exodus eventually drained the city of a substantial amount of much-needed income and tax revenue, leaving it financially incapable of rebuilding a now-hollow economic infrastructure.

Youngstown-Story-MVR

Today, despite continuous challenges associated with population decline, Youngstown has achieved a relative level of stability thanks to major employers such as Youngstown State University and the General Motors Plant located right outside the city. Unfortunately, Youngstown’s unemployment rate still remains 2 points above Ohio’s average of 5.7%. However, the boom of the natural gas industry (aka hydraulic fracturing, or fracking) has brought many jobs back to a blue-collar city that knows the ins and outs of resource production and manufacturing. Many people in the city romanticize the boom of fracking, viewing it as the new robust economic engine, just as the steel industry used to be. They are eager to reap every benefit that fracking has to offer, but often without paying heed to the risks and consequences associated. This attitude is unsettling to me as a native of the community, as it seems to indicate that many people have forgetten how the struggles we’re now forced to manage were dealt to us in the first place.

Youngstown’s love affair (and ultimately messy break up) with the steel industry should serve as a cautionary tale to the way we approach and take advantage of the opportunities that any burgeoning industry presents; yet, somehow, it hasn’t. There is no doubt that fracking offers Youngstown a slew of new and much-needed opportunities at a time when we’re still faced with a great deal of uncertainty about the future. The positive impact the industrial boom has had on the city is already evident in the growth and development of many new local businesses, including industries peripherally related to fracking, such as the new Vallourec mill that opened in 2012. However, what the collapse of steel should have taught us, is the economic danger of putting all of our eggs in one industry’s basket–in other words, letting our economic livelihood rest on the success of this singular marketplace, one that may or may not even exist 20 years down the line.

The risks and concerns:

Firstly, there is the immediate concern of ‘what will become of the industry once the wells are tapped out?’. It’s possible this could happen in a relatively short number of years. Then there’s the major concern associated with fracking: the negative impact it has on the environment. Being that fracking is a relatively new and unregulated practice, it wasn’t until recently that scientists, citizen groups, and government agencies began seeing the ecological toll incurred on certain areas where the practice is booming. While Youngstown is no stranger to sacrificing the beauty of its landscape to the almighty dollar, it’s possible–from the information we already have gathered–that the environmental problems associated with fracking will be even more difficult to swallow than the widespread air pollution generated by the steel mills in the mid-20th century.

In March, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) reported finding a “direct link” between fracking and unusual seismic activity occurring in the Mahoning Valley where Youngstown is located. After a 3.0 magnitude earthquake shook Poland, Ohio (a suburb south of Youngstown), the ODNR went on to heighten its monitoring of seismic activity in order to determine the significance of the problem. More regulations may be to come. There’s also the issue of what may happen if and when existing oil & drilling regulations are ignored by the companies that are supposed to be operating under strict parameters. Just this past March, Benedict Lupo, an owner of an oil and gas drilling company in Youngstown plead guilty to “unpermitted discharge of pollutants,” after he ordered thousands of gallons of hydraulic fracturing wastewater to be dumped into a tributary of the Mahoning River. Fracking and injection wells are known to pose a risk of contamination to a city’s drinking water and groundwater, especially if regulatory standards are not adequately implemented at injection sites near viable water sources.

For these reasons, many opponents of fracking in Youngstown have advocated for a city-wide ban on the practice through what they call “The Community Bill of Rights”. It has appeared on the ballot in the past three elections and failed each time; but activists are still optimistic, feeling that the support of the ban is gaining momentum. They plan to continue to fight for this legislation until its passage.

In light of this information, it seems that–if fracking continues to present evidence of being hazardous to the environment–the practice may become tightly restricted, if not banned altogether, once again pulling the wool out from under Youngstown’s economy. With the future of fracking, its environmental impact, and economic longevity unclear, it seems the notion that the natural gas industry will act as the rope on which Youngstown can pull itself up is a misguided, if not dangerous idea.

 

Downtown-Youngstown
The alternatives:

Fortunately, the city is exploring many routes outside the realm of fracking to establish a more definitive and promising future for the community as a whole. A number of citizens have taken it upon themselves to reclaim and revitalize the city’s most dilapidated neighborhoods with the help of the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation, a non-profit organization dedicated to organizing these grassroots initiatives. Many efforts include organizing community clean-up days, creating neighborhood gardens and urban farms, and providing incentives for people to purchase and refurbish older homes in historic, or particularly fragile neighborhoods.

Perhaps the greatest illustration of renewal in Youngstown can be found happening downtown. In recent years, downtown Youngstown has seen a flourish of new restaurants open, as well as bars and fine arts events becoming more of an attraction. In addition, there’s a growing market for new tech start-ups in the downtown area, many of which call the Youngstown Business Incubator (YBI) home. The YBI is a notable and award-winning non-profit corporation focused on providing resources to help accelerate the progress of small, tech-based companies. Some of the incubator’s greatest success stories include the rapidly-expanding Turning Technologies company, and the state-of-the-art 3-D printing institute, America Makes (you might remember hearing about it in President Obama’s last two State Of the Union addresses).

While Youngstown clearly still has issues that need to be addressed and progress to be made in its redevelopment, these specific points of growth and success to me indicate a favorable outlook for the city’s future prospects, especially if outside interest in these locally-operated businesses continues to expand. Youngstown has promising and progressive opportunities at its fingertips that show a clear potential for the city to lure more businesses and investors into the area in the future. I am proud of every accomplishment the Valley has made to rebuild itself, though I can’t help but recognize a certain resemblance between fracking and the history with which our steel town is all too familiar. Youngstown has a variety of paths to pursue as it works to build a strong future. NOW is the time to cultivate the opportunities that can pave the way for the sustainable growth of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley.

 

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