Circling the silos

Before the closure of Lordstown, this group of Mahoning Valley leaders was contacted by GM CEO Mary Barra to get introduced to the looming dilemma and ready local measures in response.

When U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan announced he was running for president, this same group of Valley leaders – politics aside – assembled so as to pool their national might, resources and connections to at least elevate their local son’s candidacy enough to be atop his 20-plus Democratic peers.

Some did so knowing their Republican politics might eventually come into play should Ryan of Howland, D-13th, be successful after this push. But for now, they are helping a native son rise. They defend such a move to their GOP friends as temporary local politics.

Who is this group?

Well, for now, they’re nonexistent. But, hopefully it doesn’t remain that way.

None of the above happened.

But they are just some examples of pivotal moments where the absence of a singular, focused Valley power base has deprived us.

We need an impact group. We need a “next.” We need a push. And not to be coarse, but we need, at times, a face puncher.

This whole pondering started after the back-to-back New York Times stories in May. They were cliche downtrodden “Youngstown” depictions. They used the same photo of the rusted old steel mill that for two decades has been found by CNN, Fox, Wall Street Journal, USA Today and every foreign press from London to Japan.

These stories, though, added a new backdrop of an empty auto plant.

With presidential elections next year, we will again become a campaign backdrop and a punch line for someone else’s story. That is not ideal, nor is it true. After those stories last month, there was not any answer from Valley leadership – media, business, government, education, etc.

When you don’t tell your story enough, someone else does.

Their story of your story is often just to serve their story. (Read that again.) We should know this. We’ve been that story for three decades or so.

Let’s be clear: We’re not absent of good people, good groups and good things in the Valley. We know that – despite the Times stories.

From nonprofit agencies to government coalitions to businesses and more, we have a great collection of smart people.

Within our business community, we have robust local ownership. They may not rival in numbers or dollars the heyday of the steel days. Yet, they are formidable.

So if we have this talent, but we also have this challenge, what is the issue?

I think it’s that our strength is in silos.

Our most muscular private and public groups connect as needed. But often, they stay to their most familiar causes to ensure comfort, control, history and numerous other very legitimate reasons.

For contrast: About 100 years ago, Youngstown had challenges. Industrial leaders Frank Hitchcock, L.A. Manchester, Phillip Wick, Henry Butler and John Stambaugh got together with their money and their passion for a better city. A better agenda was needed. They formed the Youngstown Foundation to serve such needs.

Two things they did were noteworthy and is likely key to its success today: They defined immediately “Youngstown and vicinity.” They did not silo their interest to just one city (or agency or need.)

They also enticed their peers to do the same within this same structure: Get them out of our individual silos to make a bigger and more impactful silo that can be fluid for the moments at hand.

For all that Columbus is as a city, a state capital and a major university center, it found itself needing a jolt in the late 1990s. From that thinking among seven CEOs came the Columbus Partnership. Much of what has led the capital city’s surge the past 10 years touches on this group of seven, which has grown to a group of 70.

Fort Wayne’s 2006 downtown, I was told, resembled Youngstown’s 2006 downtown. In 2013, the two leading business groups combined to make a “super” chamber of commerce of sorts.

In five years, the transformation has been breathless. It’s not been without controversy. But Fort Wayne is now in national conversations that are 180 degrees turned from those that we are in.

We have had two recent power plays that resemble the type of muscle that I think is needed.

When Gov. John Kasich set out to begin the last-chance fix for Youngstown schools – House Bill 70 – he connected with an ad hoc group of six influential leaders to agree with this direction. With that, HB 70 happened. It allowed for an academic commission to appoint a CEO to have complete control of the Youngstown schools.

A more dramatic event, and perhaps ironic given an example I noted above, was when Youngstown State University President Randy Dunn fled his job after seven months.

Ryan recognized this was beyond bad and needed an abrupt redirection.

He assembled 31 Valley power names into a single silo to sign on to this mission: “We want Jim Tressel as the next YSU president. Period.”

Only a group as business and community savvy as this could recognize the madness of a football coach as college president, yet embrace it as the best answer.

The board was never going to have the ability to come to this decision alone for fear of being the laughing stock of Ohio universities. The 31’s stance made for a great best-selling Vindicator cartoon by graphic arts director Robert McFerren of “Tressel Crossing the Mahoning.”

It also made for an awkward couple of board meetings and chats. Sure, there was a presidential “search” – if you want to call it that. But the Mahoning River would have iced over in July before the YSU board went against those 31 names.

Today’s YSU is unrecognizable because of that power play.

So I wonder. Had Ryan’s group stayed together in that great silo after Tressel’s appointment, and had it grown that silo, and had it set a “next” and an agenda, what could have come of issues such as Lordstown, or Cafaro Company’s courting of Amazon, or an airline recruitment effort or ... its founder’s efforts to launch a bid for the most important office in the world.

Such a group would change the Valley.

Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes emails about stories and our newspaper. Email him at Tweet him, too, at @tfranko.