For the past two years Barack Obama has name-checked Youngstown, in his State of the Union addresses. The President has pointed to the potential that advanced manufacturing has to remake a city still trying to recover from the collapse of the steel industry nearly forty years ago. ideastream’s David C. Barnett recently paid a visit to the former industrial powerhouse, searching for signs of new life.
Civic leaders like to point to the Youngstown Business Incubator (or YBI) as evidence that the old steel town is making a comeback. As CEO of YBI, Jim Cossler plays Mother Hen to a collection of tech start-up firms in some old downtown buildings, long abandoned, but now buzzing with activity.
SOUND OF COSSLER GIVING TOUR: We've gone from two-and-a-half floors in this five-story building in 2001, to over 120,000 square feet in four buildings --- all interconnected. [BEEP SWIPE IN] UNDER:
The Incubator’s most successful hatchling is Turning Technologies, a multi-million-dollar operation that designs audience response systems used for everything from business meetings to TV quiz shows. The federal government recently moved a new operation onto the YBI campus, perhaps hoping that some of the Incubator’s success will rub off.
OBAMA CLIP: “We created our first manufacturing innovation institute in Youngstown, Ohio. A once-shuttered warehouse is now a state-of-the art lab where new workers are mastering the 3-D printing that has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything.
Known as “America Makes”, the $70-million Institute is funding research projects that promote additive manufacturing --- more popularly known as 3D printing.
SOUND: 3D printer UP & UNDER
One of those projects involves Humtown Products, a small metal casting business, just south of the city. In a well-worn workroom off the main shop floor, an automotive part designed on a computer screen is being created by a print head that sprays successive layers of plastic on top of each other, gradually building up into a three dimensional object. Humtown CEO Mark Lamoncha still recalls his reaction when he first saw a 3D printer in action.
MARK LAMONCHA: I was astounded. It was beyond my imagination that you could do what you could see done here.
Humtown is part of a consortium that is exploring ways that this technology might replace more traditional metalworking processes. It could be a game-changer for parts manufacturers. But, Cleveland Federal Reserve economist Joel Elvery says those “coulds” and “mights” don’t necessarily herald a wave of economic development for Youngstown.
JOEL ELVERY: Many regions have tried but few have had successful harnessing of technology and federal research spending to really grow their region. It's a difficult thing.
Moreover, Elvery suggests that all the cheerleading should be tempered by the reality that new technology comes with a cost.
JOEL ELVERY: One of the risks of this focus on manufacturing that the Obama administration's had is that people have in mind that these plants are going to come, and these plants will have many, many jobs. The way that manufacturing works nowadays is that there are fewer and fewer people. And so, whereas you got an auto part plant in 1990, that might mean 500 jobs or 600 jobs. You get an auto parts plant now, that means 100-200 jobs.
Still, longtime Youngstown resident Presley Gillespie is optimistic about the potential for local jobs, and says it's great to see downtown come alive with new shops, restaurants and apartments, catering to the young tech workers at the Incubator. But as Executive Director of the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation, Gillespie says, he hasn't seen any of that prosperity trickle outside the central city.
PRESLEY GILLESPIE: There are jobs, I believe, being created, and opportunities. But, we need to figure out how to make sure that those jobs are accessible by the residents that live in our neighborhoods, because we still have high concentrations of poverty
And the region still has an unemployment rate of 7.6 percent, and lost 400 jobs last year. Youngstown has a ways to go, on the path to that comeback.
TAG: This story is the first chapter of an hour-long examination of the role of federal spending in rebuilding the U.S. economy. How government intervention helps and hurts entrepreneurs --- tonight at 9:00, here on 90.3.