Youngstown, Ohio: A Fascinating Economic History
In his State of the Union Address last night, President Obama said he believes the next revolution in American manufacturing has already begun thanks to 3D printing and additive manufacturing. The President announced the creation of three more manufacturing innovation institutes--similar to the one launched last year in Youngstown, Ohio. He also urged Congress to pass legislation to fund nearly a dozen more.
Some background: In August 2012, the federal government pledged $30 million, in conjunction with a $45 million investment commitment from five federal agencies and $40 million from manufacturing firms and educational institutions, to launch a military-run innovation hub in Youngstown. The purpose of the hub, called the Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, is to explore how the applications of 3D printing and additive manufacturing (which is just 3D printing on an industrial scale) can spur innovation in the American manufacturing sector.
But well before this federal initiative, Youngstown has been on a path to reinvention--trying to recapture its place as a national techonology hub. In a 2010 Inc. feature, author Bill Donahue wrote about Youngstown's hard-knock history:
Youngstown died on September 19, 1977. That was Black Monday. Forty-one hundred workers at the Campbell plant of Youngstown Sheet and Tube, the city's biggest employer, showed up that morning to learn they had been laid off, permanently. A spirit of fear and anomie had been seeping into Youngstown for years, as the U.S. steel industry withered and the local foundries, once owned by the lions of Millionaire's Row, got sold off to out-of-town conglomerates. Now, despair set in. By the early 1980s, Youngstown had one of the highest arson rates in the country. Sheet and Tube had shuttered another plant. U.S. Steel and Republic Steel left Youngstown, too. All told, greater Youngstown lost about 50,000 jobs in steel and related industries.
But, as the story points out, in 2005, there was a shake up of sorts.
Things got so dire that in 2005, the city's voters did a 180. They elected as mayor Jay Williams, a 34-year-old African American banker and political rookie who carried a vision to make Youngstown "healthy and leaner," largely by demolishing vacant houses and revitalizing downtown. Williams, who is still mayor, is now therock star of the rust belt's burgeoning "shrinking city" movement. He appears frequently on national television and has been invited to the White House. He works in tandem with Tim Ryan, who is just 36.
The story goes on to reveal how this turn of events changed the landscape, and the growth of the scrappy Youngstown Business Incubator (YBI), prompted a revival of creative energy.
Until about 2005, Youngstown was a hard sell to young creative types. Now, though, there is a small community of tech people who have come back to their hometown, to embrace the place as though it were the lost Holy Land. The group's guiding spirit is Tyler Clark, a 34-year-old musician and Web-strategy consultant who serves as YBI's "chief imagination officer," helping local businesses spruce up their websites... Clark's wife, Jaci, a photographer who grew up here, came back, and the visit was a revelation. The Clarks bought a meticulously maintained five-bedroom Millionaire's Row manse, once the home of Sharon Steel president Henry Roemer, for $188,000.
And, as of 2010, the outlook for Youngstown was cautiously optimistic. He wrote:
Ned Hill, the dean of Cleveland State University's urban affairs program, feels Youngstown has momentum. "There's unprecedented optimism there," he told me. "The mayor is walk-on-water amazing, and they know what they're doing at the incubator. They realize that incubation isn't just about giving away free space. And because that area is dominated by community, as opposed to national, banks, the tech companies can get good financing. The bankers there are willing to take a little risk to get Youngstown going again."
For Hill, the big question is: Will software companies stay in Youngstown? Tech start-ups are often funded by venture capital -- and VC firms have no qualms about selling a company as soon as it achieves some success and letting it be swept out of town. "Will that happen in Youngstown, or are YBI companies poised to stay and grow?" Hill asks. "The honest answer is, I just don't know. I am not smarter than the market."