Economic hope for the Mahoning Valley

On August, 21, 2008 General Motors’ CEO Rick Wagoner stood on a makeshift stage in front of a packed audience of Lordstown autoworkers, state and local politicians, and civic leaders from the Mahoning Valley to announce that his troubled global company would invest $350 million to retool the plant for production of the new Cruze line. GM’s announcement represents more than just an infusion of corporate capital in a production line. It is a profound vote of confidence in the future of the Mahoning Valley.

Almost 31 years ago, on September 19, 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube’s Campbell Works was closed without notice, leaving thousands out of work and beginning to dismantle the country’s third largest steel producing center. For decades, the people of the Valley had boasted of “Thirty Mills in Thirty Miles.”  By the mid-80s, that had became a bitter memory as mill after mill closed.  Ultimately the demise of the steel industry left 50,000 people out of work and devastated the Youngstown area.

Over the next 25 years the city’s population shrunk in half. As laid-off workers left to pursue opportunities elsewhere, foreclosures, abandonment, and tax delinquency ripped through once proud neighborhoods.  Along with manufacturing jobs, families lost their houses, their dignity, and their hope for the future. The Valley’s social service agencies were stretched to the breaking point.  Local governments cut staff dramatically, shut off street lights, and deferred all but the most essential services.  Downtown Youngstown became a stage set of the empty storefronts, roofless commercial buildings, and abandoned lots, used by reporters and politicians to illustrate the impact of deindustrialization in the Great Lakes. The once fierce sprit of the Valley, like the fires of its mills, was extinguished. For many, optimism was replaced by despair, anger, and resignation.

A generation was to pass before the devastation began to reverse. The past 5 years have been a time of profound change.  New leadership has emerged in the Valley’s two major cities-Youngstown and Warren-and in the region’s Congressional and state legislative delegations. New IT companies, focused on “business to business” software applications, are developing at the Youngstown Business Incubator. YSU began construction of a new $34 million Williamson College of Business Administration, and the state chancellor of higher education announced plans to develop a community college in the Mahoning Valley.

Despite the steady progress of the past five years, the Valley’s future has remained uncertain as people await evidence that manufacturing-long the cornerstone of the region’s economy-will once again provide opportunity and prosperity.

GM’s investment marks one of the most significant private sector capital infusions in the Valley in recent decades.  It is also a profoundly important acknowledgement by a global corporation that the Mahoning Valley is back in the game as a place to do business.

Standing shoulder to shoulder that afternoon with hundreds of UAW members and with cars moving on the production line all around us, we heard union reps talk with sober pride about the effort they and their fellow workers had made and the sacrifices they had accepted in the most recent contract negotiations to insure that Lordstown would remain competitive in the cutthroat world of global auto production. Their hardnosed realism was balanced by the enthusiasm with which they and the entire audience greeted the full-scale mockup of the new Cruze-a sleek, stylish global automobile that will go head-to-head with the competition from Honda and Toyota. What I witnessed was a team proud of wining without compromising fundamental values, of producing quality work at a competitive price, and of earning a fair wage and benefit package. It was clear that this investment in the Lordstown plant and in the Mahoning Valley economy was enormously important economically and spiritually both to the Lordstown workforce and to the wider community.

It was no small feat to get GM to add a third shift, to integrate the new workforce-drawn from places as far afield as Shreveport Louisiana-onto the line in record time and to compete for $350 million in scarce corporate capital even as GM closes other factories in the region.  Many of the speakers-from labor and management-stressed with hard won pride the importance of this accomplishment and the fact that this success resulted from collaboration and cooperation within the workforce and between labor and management.  Lordstown’s message might apply both to Northeast Ohio’s manufacturers and their employees: tough, fair, reality-based negotiations combined with a renewed competitive drive and a fierce dedication to producing a quality product can lead to success in the global marketplace.

While GM’s investment will yield tax revenues for state and local governments and create additional new jobs in the region, the most significant outcome is its effect on the heart and soul of the Valley.  As Congressman Tim Ryan told Wagoner,  GM had given the Valley something it hasn’t had for a long time: hope. He predicted that a decade hence people would see August 21, 2008 as “the day the Mahoning Valley turned the corner.”

The GM Lordstown story demonstrates that economic development is not just about making deals and cutting ribbons. It is about giving people back their hope and giving communities back their future.

Hunter Morrison

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5 Responses to Economic hope for the Mahoning Valley

  1. Lori G says:

    As a proud owner of a GM manufactured vehicle I am glad to hear the great things GM is doing for our community. I was conscidering relocating as soon as I graduated but I read this article and it has made me think about reconscidering. There is hope for the valley and surrounding areas. GM has opened a door for more big business to invest in our communities. They have been here a long time and I don’t see them leaving anytime soon.

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  2. skylark says:

    Hope is something we definitely need more of here in the valley. I’m glad to see the creation of more jobs at GM and new people have the opportunity to to become employees. However, it does come with a slight bitter after taste. GM is partially to blame for the demise of it’s subsidaries under Delphi. It seems that after the spinoffs, the prosperous plants were lumped under the umbrella and went down with the sinking ship.
    At Packard, under GM, there were repeated contracts that accepted tiered and lower wages. It took PHP’s 10 years to make full wages. CHP’s had to wait to fill a slot after PHP’s reached parity. Of course, this allowed them to hire about 2000 people over 10 years. Unfortunately, due to the predicament Delphi found itself in, most of them no longer have jobs, and are uncertain about their pensions. Granted they were offered early retiement/buyout programs or better stated; “run for your life because you won’t have a job,” fear tactics by local Delphi management. GM itself even offered buyouts (to reduce it’s payroll). Now ironically, 2 years later, things have turned around. GM has taken the remaining skeletons of Packard’s workforce back into the fold. While stories float around about worker’s getting hired at GM and being let go because they took the buyout from Delphi. Did GM setup all those subsidaries to fail, back in 1999? Was this a part of their strategic development plan, to reduce their commitments to them, pull their contracts and send them into bankkruptcy? Is this the trade off, for more low paying jobs that take 10 years to reach parity; reduced numbers in the unions; failure to kep up with attrition and an exodus of almost 2500 jobs? If so, then I guess it does give the valley hope until they decide to pull out and/or export more jobs. Oh maybe it’s a panacea for the lack of economical stability that this valley has experienced based on GM’s managerial decisions over the last decade. I say I’m greatful that GM has given more jobs to the valley, I’m just leary of how long those jobs will be around and I hope GM is more committed to this community than they were to Saginaw, Flint, Detroit and Delphi.

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  3. Fairydust8418 says:

    This article proves that Mahoning County is only going to get better. After years of hardships, this article gives hope to the residents of the valley. Great article on how we are all trying to improve the valley!!

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  4. Frank says:

    I think it is great that the Lordstown GM plant is not going to die. There have been too many companies, that were at one time established in Northeast Ohio, leave the area; when they left, the communities that were once there crumbled. It is depressing to drive down streets and to have to imagine what they used to look like in their hay day. I’m glad that Northeast Ohio is not going to have to go through the devastation of job losses at least for the mean time.

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  5. Joe Smith says:

    I believe this move from GM is not just about jobs in the local area, but about stimulating the local economy. Wealthy areas and impoverished areas are really defined by the amount of capital circulating in the given area. With more workers being employed, more money will be in the area, and those workers will spend it. This influx in money in the area will help support local business through patronage. More stores will stay open and provide more jobs, which creates more money to be spent. This cyclical process will slowly but surely be the hope for the Valley to thrive once again. GM’s decision to add a shift and manufacture their new line of cars will hopefully be the jolt that this economic wasteland needs to rise to moderate prosperity.

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