WARREN — Sure, the viral outbreak dominated the headlines this year; it bludgeoned businesses, caused joblessness to spiral out of control and threw the economy into a tailspin.
No doubt, COVID-19 was the No. 1 news story of the year, but dig a bit deeper and there was some positive local business-related news in the mix. So without further delay, the top 10 business stories, excluding the pandemic, this year in Trumbull and Mahoning counties:
1. Mahoning Valley part of GM’s electric future
General Motors announced Jan. 14 it had selected a 158-acre plot of land in Lordstown adjacent to its former automaking plant to build a $2.3 billion battery-cell manufacturing plant, a decision that meant upward of 1,100 new jobs here.
What would eventually become Ultium Cells LLC, a joint venture with South Korea’s LG Chem, was put on a fast track toward completion. It received the final permit to go ahead with construction in May and site work had begun within weeks.
The automaker will rely heavily on the multimillion-square-foot plant on Tod Avenue as it moves toward an all-electric future. Cells mass produced there will be used in battery packs that will power several vehicles in GM electric lineup.
GM and LG Chem equally are sharing the investment in Lordstown that’s on pace to start production in early 2022.
The plant is seen as key in the transformation of the Mahoning Valley from the Rust Belt moniker, given to produce images of decaying factories and long-gone days of the area’s thriving steel industry, into a vision of hope and prosperity with a high-tech twist — Voltage Valley — on the back of electric vehicle and component part manufacturing.
2. LMC gaining traction
Lordstown Motors Corp. and its battery-powered full-size pickup truck, the Endurance, are another spoke in the next-gen manufacturing wheel. The little company — for now — made big news in 2020.
Occupying GM’s former 6.2 million-square-foot facility in Lordstown, the startup publicly debuted the Endurance in mid-June with special guest Vice President Mike Pence.
In October, Lordstown Motors completed its merger with New York-based DiamondPeak Holdings Corp. and began trading publicly on the Nasdaq exchange. That merger was expected to inject $675 million into the company.
And earlier this month, it was given a tax credit that will save it an estimated $20 million in payroll taxes in exchange for the promise to create 1,570 full-time jobs. It hopes to fulfill that pledge by the end of December 2025.
Production is expected to begin in late 2021.
The company, however, found itself fending off lawsuits.
Ann Arbor, Mich.-based DTE Lordstown claims it is owed more than $2.5 million in unpaid bills for utility-related work at the plant. Karma Automotive LLC in Southern California, meanwhile, claims Lordstown Motors stole trade secrets about Karma’s infotainment system and plundered a specialized team of Karma employees who were designing it.
Lordstown Motors in court papers called Karma’s claims a “fictional tale” and “fantasy.” Lordstown Motors has said it paid DTE Lordstown “in full for all of the operational costs due through the date DTE terminated the agreement.”
Trumbull and Mahoning counties, and Warren and Youngstown, routinely over the year were near or at the top of Ohio’s jobless index, produced by the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.
In an area already struggling with high joblessness, the viral outbreak worsened matters when businesses shed workers or even closed. The rates have come down, but in November the area still fared poorly.
The latest numbers show Trumbull and Mahoning counties were in a three-way tie for fourth worst rate in the state at 6.8 percent. Youngstown was tied with Maple Heights at the top with a 9.9 percent jobless rate and Warren’s 8.9 percent ranked it No. 6.
In October, Trumbull and Mahoning counties had a four-way tie for with Cuyahoga and Jefferson counties for the highest rate, 6.6 percent. Warren’s rate of 9.1 percent placed it No. 5 and Youngstown’s 9.7 rate was No. 3 for the highest rates among cities in Ohio.
Unemployment numbers for December will be released by the state in January.
The year started with calls on President Donald Trump to intervene on behalf of a group of Delphi salaried retirees fighting to have the full pensions restored ahead of a hearing before the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The group had sued the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation over the lost benefits as a result of Delphi’s bankruptcy more than 10 years ago. The hearing in January was an appeal of a lower Michigan court’s ruling to dismiss the lawsuit.
The U.S. court sided with the lower court, prompting more legal wrangling when the Delphi Salaried Retirees Association in October asked the Sixth Court to review its previous decision.
A few days later, President Donald Trump took executive action by directing members of his Cabinet to report within 90 days recommendations to remedy the reduced retirement benefits that happened when the PBGC took responsibility for the pensions.
The review was to include whether the pension plan can be restored to pretermination status and bring additional transparency to the decision to terminate the plan.
A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Howland, a longtime advocate for the group, said the congressman would continue to push the new administration on the matter. As will Republican Mike Turner of Dayton, who also has supported the efforts of the retirees.
5. EGCC plants itself downtown
Eastern Gateway Community College purchased two downtown buildings — Thomas Humphries Hall, the school’s main campus at 101 E. Federal St., and its health and workforce building at 101 E. Boardman St., which is the former Harshman Building.
The buys firmly plant the school in downtown Youngstown.
EGCC spent about $9.7 million for the buildings, which it formerly leased and has planned upgrades to the security and heating and air conditioning systems. The school also envisions new sidewalks, exterior lighting, outdoor seating and green space at the campus.
6. GM clawback
Way back in 2008, the state awarded GM job creation and retention tax credits worth millions to help the automaker retool its Lordstown assembly plant to start manufacturing the second-generation Chevrolet Cruze.
The job retention credit agreement required GM to stay operating there through 2028. The job creation credit required it to stay through 2037.
It didn’t happen. The automaker shut down the plant in March 2019. In doing so, it broke the agreements, so in March of this year, the state put GM on notice — we want the $60.3 million back.
Several months later in September, the Ohio Tax Credit Authority finally voted to order GM to refund the state $28 million and invest $12 million in the Mahoning Valley in education and training, community programs and / or infrastructure.
Some, including Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, wanted GM to repay every penny. Other talks involving GM, Gov. Mike DeWine and Lt. Gov. Jon Husted happened but were less about recouping the money and more about GM making further investments in Ohio.
Lydia Mihalik, Ohio’s director of development and chair of the tax credit authority, said in September the tax credit authority’s decision “protects taxpayer dollars, while also allowing for continued investment in the local community.”
GM has until Dec. 31, 2022, to make the payments.
7. YDC transformed into Campus of Care
The Mahoning Valley Campus of Care, a multiuse residential and workforce training initiative at the former Youngstown Developmental Center, was dedicated in October with a welcome ceremony, and providers are expected to begin services after the first of 2021.
Formerly YDC, a residential facility for the developmentally disabled, the campus on about 35 acres was closed in June 2017, but the state maintained it and invested $1.1 million to repair the underground power system.
Local officials here worked to repopulate the building with services.
“We’re entering a new chapter, fingers crossed,” said Sarah Lown, public finance manager for the Western Reserve Port Authority, which is shepherding the project.
All of the capital improvements are complete. Work now is to bring in the tenants. First will be Head Start in January “if everything goes to plan,” Lown said.
The campus at 4981 E. County Line Road is expected to serve residents of Trumbull and Mahoning counties.
8. Meijer stores
While construction on a Meijer in Boardman continues and the company plans to start hiring early next year for the store, plans the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based company had for a gas station there were stopped.
Boardman trustees in August unanimously agreed with the township’s zoning commission to deny Meijer’s request for a 3,300-square-foot gasoline station at Tippecanoe Road and Lockwood Boulevard.
Trustees reasoned the request was not consistent with residential zoning surrounding the proposed project and, according to Trustee Tom Costello, was not compatible with the township’s growth, but would change the parcels to “more intense use” than what was originally planned.
Meijer earlier in the year had submitted its first zone change request, but took it off the table when residents raised concerns to bring it back later with changes, including a buffer zone.
Residents protested publicly at the site ahead of the vote by trustees, saying they wanted to keep their neighborhoods intact.
“Basically what it comes down to is, nobody wants a gas station in their backyard,” said John Chupa, a resident who helped organize the protest. “This is our sanctuary. This is our home. This is what I have built for the last 15 years.”
In Austintown, the company has a conditional-use permit from October 2016 for a store on Mahoning Avenue. All zoning-related paperwork is complete, except for a stormwater management plant.
The location is the former site of the Fitch High School / Austintown Middle School building and the former Austintown library, all of which have been demolished.
“There have been no indications whatsoever that they are not coming,” said Darren Crivelli, Austintown zoning inspector. “We estimated with site acquisition and tearing down the school they probably have $3 million to $3.5 million (invested) and there are no for sale signs.”
9. Home Savings became No. 1
The merger of Home Savings Bank in Youngstown and Defiance-based First Federal Bank won regulatory approval in January, and the new company, Premier Bank, emerged in mid-June with 78 branch locations adopting the Premier Bank name and brand.
The merger was worth approximately $473 million. The new company is projected to have assets of about $6 billion and operations throughout Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
Earlier this month, the bank announced a relighting project at the bank’s downtown Youngstown headquarters was complete. It included rewiring and installation of new LED fixtures that shine on the tower as well as new, brighter LED faces on the clock that coincide with new Premier Bank signs.
10. Out with the old, in with the new
Two buildings with ties to the Mahoning Valley’s rich histories of auto and steel industries were sold.
In April, Harvest Point Church in Lordstown purchased the former United Auto Workers Local 1714 union hall on Salt Springs Road from UAW Local 1112, which had assumed control of the property when the two locals merged in 2017.
The deal was $400,000 and included about 6 acres of land of the 42 there owned by Local 1112 at the site.
In October, the former northern California-based New 999 Pine LLC bought the office building for the former Republic Steel on Pine Avenue SE for $750,000. The company has ties to a company that manufactures equipment and material for the flexible packaging industry.