Glimmers of Hope in a Community of Crumbling Buildings
Trumbull County used to be one big story: steel. Its rise in the first half of the 20th Century, and its collapse in the second.
Today, Trumbull is many stories. Some focus on continued economic decline, others on rebirth. Those stories often share the same moral repeated in communities across rural Ohio: There is no silver bullet.
Behind the stories there is grit and resilience and efforts, especially among younger people, to move on from the past.
Trumbull still has the sprawling Lordstown GM plant that has long been its life preserver. In less than two years, though, the plant has shed 3,000 jobs. The future of the remaining 1,500 is uncertain.
Warren, the county seat, has David Grohl Alley. It’s a quirky embrace of the Foo Fighters founder and Warren native, and home to Modern Methods Brewing Company. It also has a poverty rate approaching 20 percent.
It has a new downtown amphitheater, and the crumbling shell of St. Joseph’s hospital.
What it doesn’t have is any way to travel back to a more prosperous past, or any single way to leap into a more vibrant future.
“Wouldn’t it be a whole lot easier if some big headquarters just kind of came and solved all the problems?” said Tim Francisco, head of Youngstown State University’s Center for Working-Class Studies. “But I like to think people are beginning to understand the need for diversification more.”
That search for the future was happening on a sunny Sunday afternoon in the gleaming gym of Warren G. Harding High School.
Your Voice Ohio, a collaborative of more than 50 news organizations from around the state, invited people to define what makes for a vibrant community and consider ways to achieve that vibrancy. About two dozen people responded.
They included mother and daughter Shalisha and Alexis May. Of the final list of five priorities for change -- quality jobs, green renewal, accountable government, abandoned buildings and restoring hope – the pair picked hope.
Hope is having children protect their dreams.
“Hope is having children protect their dreams,” said Alexis, who is 20 and a criminal justice major at Youngstown State.
Is the past still Trumbull’s prologue?
Hope crashed into reality in most of Ohio’s industrial cities since at least 2000. It’s been hurting for decades more in Trumbull and Mahoning counties, known collectively as the Mahoning Valley.
In September of 1977, on what is still known as Black Monday, 5,000 people at Youngstown Sheet and Tube lost their jobs. Drastic cuts followed elsewhere, including R.G. Steel, Copperweld, Republic and Packard Electric.
The collapse continued during this century. Since 2000, Trumbull has lost nearly 40 percent of its total payroll -- a whopping $1.7 billion.
Manufacturing led the decline. Two-thirds of those jobs disappeared. The jobs that remain have lost nearly 10 percent of their purchasing power. And the slide is not over yet.
Security remains elusive
Tommy Wolikow, 36, got his permanent papers from GM Lordstown on Jan. 14, 2013, after five years as a temp. He framed them.
“I was in,” he said -- $26 an hour, seniority status, callback rights. “Finally, I’m going to have job security.”
GM Lordstown seemed to be on a different planet than the shells of the steel mills in his native Youngstown.
It’s a gleaming 900-plus acres of American manufacturing might, built in the mid-60s. Big enough to get its own exit on the Ohio Turnpike. Secure enough to employ Wolikow’s dad, John, for 42 years. Lucky enough to barrel out of the great recession and GM’s 2009 bankruptcy with a new labor contract and a $350 million retooling.
In 2010, bands played as labor and management celebrated together the launch of the Chevrolet Cruze, the first post-recession American car model.
Sales soared to more than 300,000 in 2014, according to the blog GM Authority. Within three years, gas prices had dropped and consumers had shifted to crossovers and SUVs. Sales of the Cruze fell by a third. (October’s quarterly sales reports showed a further drop of more than 27 percent.)
On Jan. 20, 2017, Wolikow was laid off. So were his fiancee, Rochelle Carlisle, and about 1,500 others on the third shift.
Carlisle, now 28, never made it past temp status. Still, she earned $19.80 an hour at GM, nearly twice what she got as a pharmacy tech.
Even as a temp, she could see herself finally being able to save for her daughter’s education. “I’ll be able to live a regular life,” she thought. “I won’t have to struggle to live paycheck to paycheck to paycheck.”
On June 22, GM announced that it was eliminating Lordstown’s second shift, dropping the workforce from 3,000 to 1,500.
Ohio’s U.S. senators have pushed GM CEO Mary Barra to offer assurances that Lordstown has a future. “I’m disappointed she did not do so,” Republican Sen. Rob Portman said after meeting with Barra last month.
Chevrolet spokesman Tom Mock noted that GM invested another $200 million in Lordstown for the second-generation Cruze. “The plant will continue to operate,” he said. “Chevrolet made it clear in April that they remain committed to compact cars and cars overall.”
Families, money and public policy
Meanwhile, hundreds of employees have transferred to other GM facilities out of state. That continues another troubling trend.
Trumbull County’s population has fallen by more than 40,000 since 1980, to about 200,000. Its median age has climbed to nearly 44. It has 36 people of retirement age for every 100 of working age. That’s twice the ratio in 1980 and 43 percent above the national average of 25.2.
Wolikow and Carlisle are staying. Both have mothers who are ill and children from previous relationships. He’d lose weekends with his daughter, and their 8-month-old daughter, Bella, would lose contact with her extended family.
YSU’s Francisco says commitment to family represents a core value of many such communities. “And it isn’t just sentimentality,” he said. “Working-class families rely on each other.”
When GM Lordstown seemed secure, Carlisle and Wolikow bought a buff-colored split-level about 2 miles from the plant. The yard is big, the schools are good, and no one worries about safety. Now, they say, they’d be lucky if the sale price covered their mortgage.
Tax cuts and trade deals
Carlisle, Wolikow and the rest of UAW Local 1112 haven’t given up. Union President David Green is trying to launch “Drive It Home,” an update of a make-and-buy-American campaign that helped save Lordstown a generation ago.
“But I think this is much bigger than Lordstown,” Green said. “I think this is the state.”
Green said more than a third of the parts that go into the Cruze are made in Ohio, many at mom-and-pop shops. Layoffs are hitting suppliers as well.
Carlisle argued that if Cruze sales don’t recover, GM could shift production of the Buick Encore from Korea to Lordstown. When it upgraded Lordstown in 2009, GM said the updated plant could be easily and quickly outfitted for other models.
Chevrolet spokesman Mock said the Lordstown plant is flexible, but “easily and quickly” are subjective terms when it comes to retooling. He says the company can’t comment on strategic decisions about specific models.
Wolikow and Carlisle traveled to a rally for President Trump in West Virginia, and Wolikow went to one in Minnesota to hand-deliver to Trump’s campaign manager letters detailing troubles at Lordstown.
They hoped renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement would deter GM from shifting work to Mexico. They suggested that the GOP tax cut could be reworked to include penalties for U.S. companies off-shoring jobs -- or incentives for consumers to buy U.S.-made vehicles.
The tax cuts included neither the penalties nor incentives they were looking for. But the replacement for NAFTA requires that 30 percent of the work on tariff-free cars be completed by people making at least $16 an hour.
But that doesn’t begin until 2020. And none of that will pay off Wolikow’s $12,000 in credit card debt or make next month’s mortgage payment.
So though he’s holding onto hope (down to 50-50, he said) of being recalled by GM, Wolikow used his roughly $15,000 federal Trade Readjustment Allowance to go to school for diesel mechanics and truck driving. He graduated last month and applied to four employers. Two say they want more experience.
Carlisle considered returning to work as a pharmacy tech. But that pays only about $10.50 an hour. She waits tables for $4.15 plus tips, partly because the flexible hours let her care for Bella.
Diversify or die
Even among Ohio’s 88 counties, Trumbull’s suffering stands out. But it isn’t unique. Less than a third of all counties have regained the jobs they lost since the 2001 recession.
That’s a turnabout from the previous half century; after a steep recession in 1973, all but 10 counties quickly recovered.
Albert Sumell, an economist at YSU’s working-class studies center, said three threads run through most of the counties that have recovered:
- They host major research universities, which are relatively recession-proof and offer companies both valuable research and educated workforces.
- They support quality-of-life amenities that connect people and places.
- They have diversified their economies.
Sumell said manufacturing often suffers first and recovers last in a recession. That makes a diverse employment base especially important in communities like Trumbull. And in a “silver-lining way,” Sumell says, the county has begun to diversify.
“We’re much less dependent on manufacturing because manufacturing has already declined so much,” he said. “Even if it’s for a bad reason, the fact that we’re more diversified now than we were means that we’re less susceptible to the fluctuations in the overall economy.”
Trumbull also has intentional diversity.
- The Lordstown Energy Center, an $890 million natural-gas fueled power plant, is about to come on line.
Warren’s Tech Belt Energy Innovation Center, whose mission statement begins with “We actively believe in people’s ability to change the world,” is launching its energy innovation lab.
British-based Laird Technologies has brought Warren 200 jobs in the $60,000 salary range.
- Warren native Chris Alan has finally won control of the crumbling Delphi Packard plant and plans to build automated parking systems there.
But, there are buts.
Due to automation, the Energy Center will create permanent jobs in the dozens, not thousands. Skilled-trade employers say they can’t find enough drug-free and reliable employees to fill open jobs. Employers and potential workers are often in separate communities. And one job often is not enough.
How many jobs are enough?
Jake Hvisdak stopped by the family-and-friends party marking Tommy Wolikow’s graduation from diesel-mechanic school. He had a few minutes before heading over to a bar where his wife works and he provides Saturday-night security.
His regular job is operating a crane- and boom-truck for Lamar, a billboard company. The jobs pay well, but there are few of them. His six-person crew works from western Pennsylvania to Lisbon.
Hvisdak has a commercial driving license and a handful of additional trade certifications. His wife runs her own cleaning company. A few years back, they bought a few rental properties.
”We’re not wealthy,” he said, “but we pretty much have everything we want.”
Except time, with each other and with their children.
“As soon as I get home, I say, ’Hi. Bye.’ She’s gone. I’m sleeping when she gets home. We see each other on weekends.” He shrugged. “It’s just the way it has to work, the two to three to four jobs.”
A series of base hits
In Your Voice Ohio meetings across the state, many said that hope comes from a sense of strong community – of people willing to invest in each other, so growth can come from within.
Shari Harrell first went to work in the real estate firm her grandfather started. She now heads the Community Foundation of the Mahoning Valley.
She said younger people are tackling the economy in new ways. “It’s looking at the place and space differently -- so that the way it always was, to them, is not the way it has to be.”
Adam Keck and Sarah Braun looked at two spaces differently: a $15,000 dilapidated Victorian house in downtown Warren and a converted warehouse a five-minute walk away.
One became their home. The other became Modern Methods Brewing Company.
The couple drew up their business plan for the craft brewery in 2016. Keck said they rejected a plot line that Trumbull has held on to for years.
“The narrative was, ‘Well, we’ve just gotta wait.… It’s just a matter of time before we rope in another big steel company or another company that’s going to bring in hundreds of jobs.”
Not waiting, they convinced 42 people to invest at least $5,000 in the brewery. Keck sees them as part of “a new wave of people who think like I do.”
Trumbull’s solution “is not going to be one big company,” he said. “It’s going to be a lot of base hits.”
Keck grew up in rural North Jackson, about 20 minutes away. His family made money from the steel boom. After graduating from Brown University in 2009, he came back to do community organizing in distressed areas of Warren.
He fell in love with the place, and a two-year stint turned into four. Projects included pushing for a land bank to turn around vacant properties in neighborhoods ravaged by the housing collapse.
The beer brewing started in his parents’ garage. Today, it’s done in a sleek room of wood, steel and brick, where 50-pound bags of local malt await the next brew.
Keck and Braun had planned to expand rapidly into regional distribution. Fearing that the craft-beer market was getting oversaturated, they focused instead on creating a community space in what’s becoming a downtown neighborhood.
YSU economist Sumell said that’s the third remedy for struggling communities: improving the things that give people an emotional connection to place and to each other, such as walkability, security, parks and schools.
We get so focused on what's gone, what's missing, what's not there that we neglect to look at what's good, what's growing, what is here.
He acknowledged that communities that most need those amenities often are too strapped to support them.
“Unfortunately, if you’re stuck in this vicious cycle, it’s hard to stop it. But the corollary is if you have the virtuous cycle, that also builds on itself. It’s really just a matter of slowing down the decline to a point where it goes in the opposite direction over time.”
Trumbull’s been trying to slow down the decline for decades. In some ways, its industrial past is paying it forward.
Long after Trumbull stopped producing the Packard automobile, the W.D. Packard Concert Band plays on. It’s in its 63rd season of free orchestral concerts on Sunday afternoons in the Packard Music Hall, next to the Packard Museum, adjacent to Packard Park and endowed by industrialist William Doud Packard.
Though it’s rooted in the past, the Community Foundation’s Harrell said experiences like this need to be part of Trumbull’s thinking about its future.
“We get so focused on what’s gone, what’s missing, what’s not there that we neglect to look at what’s good, what’s growing, what is here.”
M.L. Schultze is a former editor, reporter and news director for WKSU public radio and the Canton Repository. She currently is a freelance writer and can be emailed. Contributing to this project was freelance investigative data reporter David Knox.