Mahoning Valley Considers A New Economy For An Old Region

Jan 24, 2020

Eight kids sit at the conference table pitching their projects: smart phones that expand, fold, fit around their wrists.

But the inaugural logistics class at Lordstown High School is not pitching some mythical technology. Instead, they're talking about transportation, distribution networks, dodging the paths of hurricanes—in short, how to introduce and distribute foreign-made goods throughout a U.S. market.

With a $170 million HomeGoods warehouse taking shape near the former GM plant, Lordstown superintendent Terry Armstrong says this sort of class on how to move products around the globe makes sense. So, he says, would college-level courses in electric and autonomous vehicle technology at the high school— all connected to the new economy promised to the Mahoning Valley.

"We want to be part of it. We want to support them, and we want our people to be their workers of the future,” Armstong says.

And he acknowledges that means planning for a future that has more unknowns than knowns.

For a century, the Mahoning Valley has ebbed and flowed with the fortunes of traditional manufacturing. Now it’s looking toward a new economy, one defined by distribution centers and autonomous and electric vehicles.

Here are the knowns:

  • The GM assembly plant that once employed 14,000 people is gone. More than 1,000 people who worked there before its closure have transferred to other GM plants around the country, while thousands more have retired or gone looking for jobs elsewhere.
  • GM sold the plant for about $20 million to a startup that plans to build electric pickup trucks—a price that's only about half the old value of the plant.
  • In a joint international venture with LG Chem, GM plans to build an electric vehicle battery plant nearby.

The unknowns are basically everything else: taxes, training, incentives, investment, pay, unionization, even the future of the electric vehicle market itself.

Planting The Future

When Dan Crouse drives around the old GM plant, he sees not the past, but a future about which he’s “over the top” optimistic.

“We’ve got a lot of those things that are becoming the future, if you will," he says.

Crouse, a commercial realtor, points to the HomeGoods center, to the open fields where he envisions the battery plant, to a turnpike that’s experimenting with autonomous vehicles, and to a state-of-the-art power plant.

Dan Crouse, a commercial realtor in the Mahoning Valley, provides a driving tour of Lordstown.
Credit M.L. Schultze / WKSU

He weaves it together into a new economy for an old region.

“This is a little like standing at the end of a runway," Crouse says. "On a clear day with keen eyesight, you can see planes circling. The question is, are we smart enough to help them land, and are they smart enough to see what’s here?”

Among those trying to help land those planes are Ohio’s governor, lawmakers and JobsOhio, the state’s private jobs agency. After all, the new battery plant alone could create more than 1,100 jobs.

J.P. Nauseef heads JobsOhio, which boosts site selection, workforce development and research. This project is bigger than many, he says.

“This one’s particularly exciting because it really is planting the future right there in an area that is well-equipped to deliver," Nauseef says.

Skeptical Of Promises

But others in the Valley—home of steel, auto and a lot of disappointment as those industries have shrunk, shifted and disappeared—are more cautious.

Joseph Walker was born the year the Lordstown plant opened, 53 years ago, so it’s been a big presence his whole life. He heads the Trumbull County Ministerial Alliance, and for much of his life, he’s been trying to convince young people to see the world, but invest their futures in the Valley.

The decision by GM to shutter its assembly plant in March made that harder.

“Whatever jobs were there were taken when the steel mills closed, when Delphi closed, when Ohio Lamp closed," Walker says. "There was nothing left to absorb these people here that were forced out of GM.”

UAW members at the Lordstown picketed in solidarity last year with other autoworkers on strike around the country.

Monica Hoskins Vann, who runs a small insurance company in nearby Boardman, says the Valley has learned to be skeptical and to mistrust corporate America.

“Everyone comes here with that positive message and so many of them leave here, and they did not fulfill what they said they were gonna do," Vann says.

So while they welcome news of jobs, Hoskins and Walker want to know more: how much the jobs will pay, how local people will be recruited and what kind of training will be offered.

Some of the answers depend on decisions in D.C. where, although Congress failed to renew the tax credit on electric-vehicle sales, the Department of Energy is considering a low-interest loan for the battery plant.

Then there’s the monumental role a $5 billion Postal Service contract could play in the future of Lordstown Motors, the start-up that bought the assembly plant. Lordstown is an offshoot of another start-up called Workhorse, which is in the running for the contract to build 180,000 electric vehicles for the USPS.

Lordstown Motors has licensed from Workhorse the prototype of an electric pickup and plans to hire 400 people to start building it for the open market by next year. But CEO Steve Burns says getting the postal service contract could elevate Lordstown Motors “into the stratosphere."

In this Sept. 16, 2019, file photo a picketer carries sign at one of the gates outside the closed General Motors automobile assembly plant in Lordstown, Ohio.
Credit Keith Srakocic / AP

Unions are a also key piece of the Mahoning Valley’s history, but it's unclear if they’ll have a role in its future. GM says that will be up to the battery plant workers, while Burns says he’ll go union if that ensures a quality, flexible workforce.

Walker says losing the old way of life hurt here deeply, but the next year will be crucial in determining how the Valley moves on. If they’re to really invest in the future, he says, local people need to see concrete steps.

“If during this time, we see progress," Walker says, "it will still have a scar on the generation that was immediately affected, directly” by the closing of the GM plant. “But for a group coming up, I think you can build something. I think you can build trust."