SHENANGO TOWNSHIP — The Shenango River runs through southwestern Mercer County in Pennsylvania and the Mahoning River flows across Youngstown and Warren in Ohio.

The two rivers meet in Lawrence County.

James Dignan, president and CEO of the Youngstown-Warren Regional Chamber of Commerce, said that was a metaphor for the cooperation between three chambers of commerce in two states along the three rivers.

"When that rain falls, or when that snow melts, in July, it goes into one of two rivers and that river flows into one," Dignan said Monday during his opening remarks for the Rising Rust Belt economic summit.

The summit itself was another confluence, with the Youngstown-Warren, Lawrence County and Shenango Valley chambers of commerce combining to make a significant economic statement. Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and Lydia Mihalik, director of Ohio Development Services Agency, gave keynote speeches during the event. which attracted a sold-out crowd of more than 400 people.

Rising Rust Belt, held at Park Inn by Radisson in Shenango Township, also featured 16 panels and presentations, in four breakout sessions, with 44 vendor tables.


Even though the ethane cracker plant isn't scheduled to begin production of plastic derived from natural gas for two more years, shale gas is already driving large incremental investments in the U.S., including Ohio and Pennsylvania.

The natural gas industry fueled more than 400 projects in Ohio and Pennsylvania in 2018 alone, with both plastic and chemical manufacturing companies benefitting, said Paul Boulier, vice president for industry and innovation at Team NEO, Cleveland.

"It's all about revitalizing this region and moving forward," Boulier said. "We believe in this region. We've got every right to think we can develop it. We have to be a united, collaborative effort going forward to make this happen."

Boulier, Jim Damcis; senior vice president of Camoin Associates in Maine; and Roger Pearson of Civil and Environmental Consultants of Cranberry Township, Butler County. participated in the "Plastic and Petrochemicals Supply Chain Opportunities" panel.

Damcis said the cracker plant is expected to spur development within a 700-mile radius because of "shorter delivery times, increased reliability and flexibility in production and cost advantages due to shorter shipping distances.

Hermitage Commissioner Michael Muha endorsed the idea of multiple chambers of commerce coming together.

"(Events like) Rising Rust Belt boost morale, said Michael Muha, Hermitage commissioner. "I think it's 100 percent positive for our area. It kickstarts conversations that need to happen."

Higher Education

After more than 30 years as a football coach, including four national collegiate championships, Jim Tressel admitted the transition to college administrator came as a shock.

"When I first sat down at my desk, I thought, 'What am I doing here," Tressel said about taking over as president of Youngstown State University.

Tressel, who said he's since adjusted to the job, participated in "The Role of Higher Education in Community Development" panel with Dr. Jo Anne Carrick, campus director of Penn State Shenango; Dr. Kathy Richardson, president of Westminster College; Jim Tressel, president of Youngstown State University; and Arthur Daly, president of Eastern Gateway Community College.

Unlike most of the other 20-plus campuses Penn State University maintains across Pennsylvania, the Shenango campus is located in an urban downtown instead of on the outskirts of, or in rural areas. That makes civic engagement imperative at the school.

"The strength and growth of the city is directly related to our growth and progress," Carrick said.

When it comes to helping retain young people after graduation, Tressel said it was important that there were employment opportunities awaiting the students. However, it was also important to encourage students to create their own ideas or businesses that can help bolster the local economy.

"Most of our engineers are getting job offers when they're still juniors, sometimes seniors, but we also want engineers that are going to create something," Tressel said.

Health care

Robert Jackson has been president of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center hospitals at Jameson in New Castle, and Horizon in Farrell and Greenville for only a matter of days. But he understands his employer's unusual role as both a health-care provider and a health-care insurer.

"I think the biggest change in the health care field over the next three to five years will be the rise of individual choice in the health care system," said, Jackson, who moved from leadership at Grove City Medical Center to UPMC's Lawrence and Mercer county hospitals.

Jackson joined the "Economics of Health Care in the Rust Belt" panel with CEO Joseph Hugar of Sharon Regional Medical Center and Anthony Seminaro, CFO with Mercy Health in Youngstown.

As the largest private employer in Mercer County, Hugar said the Sharon Regional Health System has hired over 400 additional people over the past few years to work in more specialized health care roles, while educating patients in what specialized health care is available in their area. But he said that could be only a start.

"In two years, I'd like to tell you we hired another 400 people," Hugar said.

Sharon robotics

The Sharon robotics team, Tiger Techs, set up robots, projects and patent they have been working on to show off to local leaders.

"Students were interacting with local business leaders and they are seeing what the youth today is capable of and seeing how it can be transferred to jobs down the road," said advisor Dave Tomko.

The students took advantage of the opportunity.

"We've talked to a lot of people," said seventh-grader John Stanek. "This is helping us with this year's project too because there's a lot of people involved in city planning and city building and that's what this season is about."


During Fetterman's morning keynote speech, Dustin McGaughey, a student at Sharpsville High School and the eAcademy and eCenter@LindenPointe asked what the lieutenant governor wished he had known as a teenager.

McGaughey said he experienced a little bit of nerves during the experience.

"I wasn't nervous to ask a question," he said. "Just being in front of 400 people."

McGaughey attended Rising Rust Belt with a group of eAcademy students that also included Taylor Sowash and Amber Magee from Sharpsville, and Ashley Bell from Commodore Perry.

Lisa Evans, program director for LindenPointe Development Corp., said the summit gave students an opportunity to gain real-world experience in attending a business conference. She said the high schoolers can rub elbows with adult business figures and elected officials and, yes, question the lieutenant governor.

"If they can do all those things in a safe atmosphere, they'll have confidence for the next time," Evans said.


Fetterman gave one of the participants a plug during his speech.

"I'm going for my 13th anniversary to a wine bar in a converted schoolhouse in New Castle," he said.

The lieutenant governor was referring to VentiSei Winery, owned by Denny Flora, who promoted relationships among businesses and community entities.

"We try to partner with positive people," Flora said. "It's something to build off, having that message of positivity."

Flora participated in the "Food and Beverage Economy" panel with Laura Ackley, manager of Buhl Mansion and Donna's Diner in Sharon and marketing manager of Tara in Clark; and Sean Dougherty, manager of the Common Wealth Kitchen Incubator in Youngstown.

Jen Krezeczowski, owner of Lulu Beans Cafe in Sharon, was in the panel's audience.

"I think the most important thing I heard today was when Laura Ackley said every business needs to be supporting every other business," she said. "We need to see other businesses as cooperative allies not as competition. We have to be supportive of each other."

Federal Reserve

Advisors with the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland presented Monday morning in front of county and city officials an outline to help revitalize local economy.

Mekael Teshome, a vice president, and Drew Pack, regional community development advisor, stressed four important points a municipality or county must have to ensure successful revitalization. The keys are having an opportunity for improvement in job skills, reversing negative population trends, supporting small businesses and working with various types of capital.

Farrell Mayor Olive McKeithan said their city manager has already put into practice a lot of what the presenters talked about.

"I think the new houses we're building go far toward economic revitalization," McKeithan said.

Commissioner Matt McConnell said the presenters reiterated strategies he is well-versed in, including financial strategies.

"Our inflation rate here is much, much lower than in a lot of other parts in the country," McConnell said. "One of the most important things I heard is that the millennials are now having children and are wanting to come back to areas like ours and it's an opportunity for us."

Workforce Development

Many businesses are coming together to figure out why people would want to live, work and play in our area, said Carol Kilko, Pennsylvania's deputy secretary for business financing.

"Right now, what we're seeing is a people gap," Kilko said. "We need bodies."

Kilko and Jessica Borza, executive director of Mahoning Valley Manufacturers Coalition, participated in the "Workforce Development in the Rust Belt" panel.

Borza stressed the importance of finding what skills are necessary to help people advance in their career paths and said she's focused on innovative apprenticeship programs in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

"Millennials are starting to say, 'Hey, I wasn't going to live here ... ' until they all of sudden realized this is an absolutely fantastic place to raise a family," McConnell said. "And we have those advantages that other areas don't. We are so close to the urban areas of Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Akron and Canton that we do have a whole lot of those items that younger folks want."


Bryan Jones of The Meszaros Family Charitable Foundation says the organization been working to acquire 500 feet in downtown Sharon in order to create a riverwalk for residents and visitors to enjoy.

"There's multiple parcels," said Jones. "We were stunned to find it was divided up as much as it is. It's not other companies, other private owners. It's between the city and, I think, the state and whatever the Army Corps (of Engineers) owns."

Jones, Kim Koller-Jones, executive director of Hoyt Art Center in New Castle and president of New Castle Blueprint Community Council, and Lowellville Mayor Jim Iudiciani were part of a panel for "Making the Most of Your Riverfront."

Koller-Jones said her program "teaches Rust Belt communities how to collectively and collaboratively organize themselves in order to revitalize communities," with the goal of creating a strategy for an 1-mile river walk trail in downtown New Castle.

Skilled Trades

Educators and skilled workers alike joined together in a discussion on how to attract younger generations into learning trades instead of attending college.

"We all know that our college graduates are experiencing the most student loan debt in the history of the United States," said Len Rich, an administrator at Lawrence County Career and Technical School and superintendent for Laurel School District. "I find it ironic that we sit here in this situation when there are three to four million skilled trades jobs open across the United States today and they will remain unfilled."

Rich, Tony DiTommaso, president of Carpenters Local 171 in Youngstown and secretary-treasurer of Western Reserve Building Trades, and Tony Miller, administrative director of Mercer County Career Center, discussed the two schools' work on educating students pursuing careers in the skilled trades.

"About 25 percent of our graduates are employed currently in a cooperative education program between business industry and the school," said Rich.

Tony DiTommaso, president of Carpenters Local 171 in Youngstown and secretary/treasurer of Western Reserve Building Trades, says there are also apprenticeships available for young people interested in trades.

"Apprenticeships are cool again" said DiTommaso. "People are starting to talk about it. They want to know a little bit more about it."


In 2015, the Youngstown Business Incubator was named by UBI Global, an international trade group. as as the No. 1 high-impact incubation program in North America by UBI Global, an international trade group.

Jim Cossler, played a significant role in that. The Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber credited him as the catalyst for the incubator's success. He was the incubator's CEO from 1998 until 2017.

There are rules for fledgling incubator businesses to follow. Among the top is that a business can't pilfer an employee from another incubator company, Cossler said.

"And don't you dare steal an idea from another of our businesses,'' he said.

Likewise, LindenPointe Development In Hermitage has developed programs to attract young entrepreneurs, said Lisa Evans, program director for the non-profit organization. The group has an incubator program for startup businesses at the eCenter and offers the eAcademy. The academy teaches students entrepreneurial skills.

Evans said the eAcademy, which offers business education to 10 high schools in Mercer and Lawrence counties through entrepreneurial projects, entices young people to remain in the area.

"For the most part they stay,'' she said.

Eric Poole, Quinn Schwartz, Michael Roknick, Melissa Klaric, Heidi Warren, David Dye of The Herald, and Maria Basileo and Pete Sirianni of the New Castle News contributed to this story.

NOTE: This article has been edited to reflect the correct participants in the "The Food and Beverage Economy" panel.

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