Howes: As blows keep coming, Youngstown fights on

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Youngstown, Ohio — The hits don't stop for the ol’ Steel Town.           

With its big mills long shuttered and its population cut in half from its post-war high in 1950, the city founded 222 years ago by John Young still could claim the jobs tied to northeast Ohio’s only auto plant: General Motors Co.’s Lordstown Assembly.

That’s until the Detroit automaker shocked the economically battered Mahoning Valley just after Thanksgiving with confirmation the plant would cease production of the Chevrolet Cruze compact. The move imperiled more than 1,400 union jobs, cutting vital tax revenue and delivering gut punches to blue-collar workers and business leaders alike.

The next hit came less than three weeks ago: On June 28, The Vindicator in Youngstown said it would cease publication at the end of next month, signaling an economic reckoning that would leave the city without its own daily newspaper for the first time in 150 years — and the region without two defining institutions.

"Locally, people are numb," says Matt Moorhead, sergeant-at-arms of United Auto Workers Local 1112 in Lordstown, roughly 20 minutes northwest of Youngstown. "It happens so much people are just numb to it — 'Oh, there goes The Vindicator.' The area is set for revival. I don't know if it will happen, or when."

This is downtown Youngstown.

The idling of GM Lordstown and the looming closure of the Vindy are the latest casualties in a downward spiral gripping a politically important region trying to reinvent itself. Its struggles, the stuff of a Springsteen song and dated Rust Belt stereotypes, vividly illustrate the human costs of deindustrialization and depopulation — painful lessons learned by Detroit and other industrial cities in the Great Lakes basin. 

Youngstown's list is sobering, if incomplete: Northside Hospital closed last year; a Kmart Corp. distribution center is closed; the Diocese of Youngstown is consolidating parishes, citing a shortage of priests and fewer parishioners; Dillard's department store closed its Southern Park Mall store; and Youngstown City Schools are under state control.

"The demographic profile is not getting any better," says A.J. Sumell, an economics professor at Youngstown State University who specializes in urban economics. He cites a "shrinking and graying population," as well as annual 1% declines in high school graduation rates over the past decade and projections of similar declines in each of the next 15 years.

"It can be hard to stay optimistic," he adds, noting a "sense of resiliency built up over decades" that you can sense in locals wrestling with the harsh economic realities all too familiar in and around Youngstown. "Statistically our profile does not look promising, and we face major headwinds." 

The serial cruelties would be stunning if not for a history of abandonment, real and perceived, that shaped the Youngstown regional economy and fueled political backlash in 2016. And it could again next year if the warning implicit in President Donald Trump’s success in the solidly blue region is not heeded by Democratic challengers in 2020: ignore the politically potent industrial Midwest at your peril.

"The Mahoning Valley is not just a political piece to talk about," said Jaladah Aslam, a local political consultant and former union staff representative, during a presidential campaign stop for New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand in Youngstown. "We're real people, and we've got real families."

End of the line

One of those families includes Crystal Carpenter, a quality inspector, member of Local 1112 and part of the second generation to work at the Lordstown plant: "We leave," she jokes of her extended family, "and the plant wouldn't be able to run. We're the Clinkscale family of Youngstown, Ohio."

Her mom and dad worked there. Her brother, four uncles, a sister and more cousins than she can bother to count do, too. The family tradition now is being forced to contend with the pitiless forces squeezing GM's place in the global auto industry, its excess plant capacity and consumers' rotation away from the traditional sedans Lordstown produced.

"I grew up on GM," she says. "You knew when you came out of school you could get your feet planted."

A hand-painted sign that says 'Save The GM Plant' is displayed at Hallock Young Rd. and Industrial Trace, within view of the Lordstown plant.

Until now. The plant's future, if it has one at all, rests in the UAW's national contract talks kicking off this week at GM, Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV. Carpenter's not seeking a transfer offered by GM, choosing instead to see whether the UAW-GM bargaining committee can rescue the massive plant opened in 1966.

"We're kinda just waiting here," says Dave Green, the president of Local 1112 who expects to receive his own transfer letter soon. "I've had grown men in here in tears. The reality is our members are under an extraordinary amount of stress."

He estimates between 1,200 to 1,300 people already have left the community to follow GM jobs to plants in Indiana, Missouri, Tennessee and elsewhere. And with them go wages that last year totaled $221 million and generated $40.4 million in payroll taxes, GM says, leaving a gaping hole in the Mahoning Valley economy.

"There's really no such thing as job security. It's pie in the sky, the carrot you'll never catch," adds Green, letting the degrees on his wall — a bachelor's from Youngstown State and a master's from Geneva College — rebut lazy caricatures. "We're not knuckle-draggers. We're not what auto workers were in the 1960s and '70s."

Stop the presses

Five days after marking its 150th birthday, The Vindicator said it would close.

"That's about as high and low as you can get in one week," says Bill Lawson, executive director of the Mahoning Valley Historical Society. He'd heard rumors about the Vindy's uncertain future. Still, he was shocked by the fact, by the implications, by the historical parallels to what's known locally as "Black Monday."

On Monday, Sept. 19, 1977, Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. said it would shut down its Campbell Works. Within five days, 5,000 people were out of work, the beginning of a brutal reckoning still reverberating in this corner of northeast Ohio and western Pennsylvania.

The Vindicator called it "the worst single blow ever suffered by the economy of the Mahoning Valley." And now Youngstown's own daily newspaper, what several called the "soul" of the community, will shut its doors for good on Aug. 31 because it cannot stem continuing losses.

"It's a local institution," says Barb Ewing, chief operating officer of the Youngstown Business Incubator. "To lose them for me personally was a deeper blow than GM. How do you quantify the loss to your community, when you don't know who passed away and when the calling hours are? It's not just a paper. It's who we are."

The Vindy's demise will be a test, too. How will the community or regional rivals in towns like nearby Warren respond beyond plans to publish a Mahoning County edition? Who will emerge to hold accountable public officials in a city that has seen two of its past three mayors indicted on corruption charges, more recent cases in Youngstown's long, colorful history of corruption and organized crime?

"I don't know that the outside world sees the grit and determination people have here," Lawson says. "They don't get the full scope of what working-class is here. I think we're all pissed off. There's not going to be another General Motors come down the pike ... or another newspaper company. There's no quick fix."

Innovate, innovate, innovate

Down in the basement of the old Vindicator building now controlled by the Youngstown Business Incubator, Fitz Frames Inc. is trying to build a piece of city's future one frame at a time.

The process is called "additive manufacturing," a more technical phrase for the 3-D printing that companies like Fitz are using to build custom eyeglass frames for children. The start-up developed a smartphone app that parents can use to select and measure frames, pair them with their prescription and email the order to production.

"Most people ask, why are you in Ohio — your company is based in California," says Katie Bassett, vice president of operations for Fitz Frames. "Youngstown happens to be a total epicenter of additive manufacturing. That's what we're doing."

It helps that the start-up's lens supplier is located in nearby Liberty, Ohio. And that Youngstown and its state university are carving a niche of expertise in advanced manufacturing many a town would love to credibly claim. Youngstown can, bolstered by the fact it landed the first Obama-era center for advanced additive manufacturing called "America Makes."

Youngstown Business Incubator "has been catalytic in getting Youngstown to think about itself differently and get the outside world to think differently about Youngstown," says Ewing, its COO. The cost-differential between the Mahoning Valley and Silicon Valley isn't the only thing making Youngstown more attractive to would-be investors: "This is the heart of the Midwest industrial complex. This is where the manufacturers are."

The YBI has kept a few items from the days when the Youngstown Vindicator printed papers in this building before moving across the street. The front doors of The Vindicator are displayed in the lobby of the YBI building. Established in 1869, the Youngstown Vindicator will print its last paper August 31st.

Amid the gloom of Lordstown and the Vindicator, there are signs Youngstown is finding its economic footing. The California-based Joseph Co. has plans to open a Chill-Can manufacturing plant to supply the beverage industry and provide more than 200 new jobs. The Regional Chamber of Youngstown and Warren issued 12 pages of companies that "have confirmed they are hiring" and would "welcome" resumes from displaced GM employees.

A $9 million amphitheater recently opened in town. Youngstown State, its enrollment stabilized, is building an innovation center that would, among other things, add research heft to efforts to build expertise in advanced manufacturing. And software companies looking to escape high-cost regions and find manufacturing talent are showing increased interest in the old steel town.

That's just what Jim Tressel wants to see. Before leading the Ohio State Buckeyes to the 2002 national championship in football, he coached 14 seasons at Youngstown State. He's president of the university now, and he remembers the days when Federal Street was blocked off and students were told to avoid the city's troubled downtown.

"The things the community needs are our responsibility," says Tressel, citing YSU's contributions to a broader region that helps pay its bills. "Our goal's got to be to create more opportunities in the innovative space. It's really a pretty good time compared to 15 years ago."

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.