Region’s economy shows signs of recovery; challenges remain

It would be premature to declare that the Mahoning Valley has weathered the national economic storm, but there is reason for guarded optimism given some of the signs that have emerged recently.

The following headline on the front page of The Vindicator, “Valley leads in industrial growth in NE Ohio,” may appear to be an exaggeration, but it accurately reflects the findings in a report made public by a Cleveland non-profit organization.

According to the analysis of the economic data of the 16-county “Cleveland Plus” region, the Mahoning Valley is leading the manufacturing surge, which includes emerging sectors such as specialty chemicals and fabricated-metal production. The report was prepared by Team Northeast Ohio.

The findings about the Valley were confirmed by Richard Harwood, founder and president of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, who had this to say during a recent visit to the region:

“This community, unlike a lot of other communities in the country, is poised to make a leap. What we are seeing is pockets of change.”

Valley residents who have had a difficult time finding work or have had to deal with changes in the work place because of the national recession may disagree with the rosy picture being painted by Team NEO, but there are indicators that provide some encouragement.

Last month, the Valley’s unemployment rate was 9.2 percent, the lowest it has been since the economy collapsed and 1.2 percent lower than October 2010.

Then there are the major developments on the manufacturing front that suggest the Valley is well positioned to take advantage of the recovery when it occurs.

General Motors Corp.’s Lordstown assembly plant is firing on all cylinders, given the huge success of the Chevrolet Cruze. The plant has been working three shifts, five days a week with a production workforce of 4,500. That success undoubtedly played a part in the company’s decision to build the diesel version of the car in the Valley.

Major investment

GM spent $350 million to retool the Lordstown plant for the Cruze, and will spend $5.5 million more to ready the plant for the production of the diesel model of the No. 1 selling compact car in the country.

Likewise, the construction of V&M Star’s $650 million state-of-the-art, steel pipe-making plant in Youngstown/Girard is progressing at an impressive clip. The plant should be in operation sometime next year and when in full production will employ 350. The average salary will be $50,000-plus.

In the 16-county “Cleveland Plus” region, manufacturing employment grew by 3.7 percent, or 8,000 jobs in the third quarter.

“The diversification in our manufacturing sector is helping to fuel the region’s gradual recovery from the 2007 recession and continues to play a prominent role in our economy,” says Tom Waltermire, chief executive officer of Team NEO.

At the very least, there appears to be light at the end of the tunnel.

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