During Youngstown, Ohio’s industrial heyday, the box-like building on West Boardman Street was home to the printing plant of the Vindicator, a venerable broadsheet that took on big business, corrupt politicians, and organized crime. Today it’s home to the future of American manufacturing—or the company behind at least one version of it: the JuggerBot Tradesman P3-44, a 3,400-pound, $225,000 3D printer built for industrial tasks such as turning thermoplastics into foundry molds. “The sheer volume of what you can do on these-style machines completely changes the game,” says Zac DiVencenzo, a Youngstown-area native who’s JuggerBot 3D’s president.
DiVencenzo grabs a felt-tipped pen, finds some empty space on a whiteboard, and begins charting up cost curves. He’s making an economic case for what’s known as additive manufacturing and for the bright future of his six-year-old startup, its six employees, and a former steel town of 65,000 people that’s been battling for decades to find a new place in a U.S. economy running away from it. “I’m just working to get Youngstown on the map,” DiVencenzo says.
For decades, this corner of Ohio has been held up by everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Donald Trump as an emblem of industrial decline and what’s gone wrong in America. A succession of presidents has promised—and failed—to turn around Youngstown, which, despite all the political attention and federal dollars lavished upon it, doesn’t have a supermarket in the residential neighborhoods closest to downtown.
In his 2013 State of the Union address, Barack Obama singled out Youngstown as an example of one route to industrial revival. Four years later, Trump came to town. The jobs are coming back, he told a crowd of supporters: “Don’t sell your house.” In 1990 more than 61,000 people were employed in manufacturing in the Youngstown metropolitan area. When Obama gave that address to Congress, the number was 29,895. By March of this year, the number was 23,128.
Now comes Joe Biden with his plans for $4 trillion in new Big Government spending. The two packages on which he’s betting his economic legacy cover everything from roads, bridges, and 21st century energy infrastructure to bringing home semiconductor and pharmaceutical production, not to mention greater access to free education and child care for workers. His biggest long-term economic bet is that an industrial pivot—from an economy driven by internal combustion engines and fossil fuels to one powered by electric vehicles, wind turbines, and solar cells—will generate enough jobs to make up for those lost when older industries faded away.
In Youngstown and the surrounding Mahoning Valley (once known as “Steel Valley,” it’s been hopefully rebranded as “Voltage Valley” by local politicians), they’ve been betting on EVs for a while. This collective goal, together with the pivot envisioned by Biden and his advisers, may well be more grounded in reality than the hollow Trump-era promises to bring back steel that were showered on the region, says Albert Sumell, an economist at Youngstown State University.
But the history of grand revitalization plans doesn’t bode well for actually generating the jobs needed or being promised. “The fact is there’s the political narrative, and then there’s the economic reality,” Sumell says. “They’re never the same, and they are often just factually opposed to one another.”
JuggerBot, founded by DiVencenzo and a few friends out of the engineering program at Youngstown State, wouldn’t exist without Big Government. As a student, DiVencenzo interned at America Makes, the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, which opened in Youngstown in 2012 as part of Obama’s efforts to spur the creation of new manufacturing jobs. Today it operates out of a federally subsidized building attached to the institute, which is also an arm of the Pentagon-affiliated National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining. The company will derive half its expected $2.2 million 2021 revenue from government projects.
DiVencenzo says his plan is to move JuggerBot out of subsidized premises and away from government work within five years, by which time he’d like to have 40 to 60 employees. In the meantime, it shares space with other government-nurtured 3D companies, including Fitz Frames, which 3D-prints $95-a-pair custom eyeglasses using an app that registers facial measurements.
America Makes, which has 13 employees of its own in Youngstown, has received $195 million in federal funding since its inception. Much of that has gone to exploratory 3D printing projects such as seeing whether the technology could enable the manufacturing of now-obsolete parts for aging Lockheed C-130 Hercules military transport planes. In 2019 the U.S. Department of Defense committed to $322 million in funding over seven years for America Makes.
There’s an inescapable contradiction in the mission of America Makes, whose network includes more than 200 companies in the U.S. and only 12 in the Mahoning Valley. It may be creating jobs in a new industry. Yet, given the realities of modern manufacturing, every productivity advancement created by an innovation such as 3D printing tends to mean fewer jobs overall.
That’s evident in Leetonia, a rural town 25 minutes south of Youngstown, where Mark Lamoncha is plotting the 3D printing future of his own family-owned company, Humtown Products, part of the America Makes network. In a former Mitsubishi tire-mold factory, five German-made 3D printers whir away 24 hours a day printing sand molds and cores for foundries that will use them to manufacture engine blocks and other cast-metal components.
Lamoncha is an evangelist for 3D printing and new productivity-driven management techniques. He has rebranded his employees “industrial athletes.” They work six-hour shifts. A payroll system monitors their performance and adjusts their hourly earnings accordingly. On his business card, it states Lamoncha is president, chief executive officer, and head coach.
The “athletes” have struggled in recent times. When the last recession hit, in 2008, Humtown, using traditional techniques to make its molds, employed 225 or so people. Today it employs 48, most of whom work at a facility in neighboring Columbiana, where they still use traditional tooling and yet produce more than the old workforce did.
Humtown is a classic illustration of how productivity-focused business interests can clash with jobs-focused economic policies. Lamoncha isn’t shy about saying he’d love to eventually move to an entirely 3D printing-driven model. That’s unlikely to involve expanding his workforce, given that only eight of the company’s employees work in Leetonia now.
Lamoncha is also exploring the idea of 3D-printing metal components directly and venturing into other materials, presaging an even bigger disruption of the local industrial economy. On a recent tour of his Leetonia plant, he stops to reach into a large cardboard box filled with what looks like white sand—a batch of polyethylene granules made for Humtown by Exxon Mobil Corp. It’s meant for a trial to see if a relatively old-school moldmaker can be turned into a high-speed producer of plastic components.
“It’s a science experiment,” Lamoncha says. “It’s the power of ‘what if?’ ”
When you drive by the former General Motors Co. plant in Lordstown, northwest of Youngstown, what strikes you isn’t the complex of buildings that once housed 6.2 million square feet of production lines but the vast tarmac tundra of empty parking lots. After the steel industry collapsed in Youngstown in the late 1970s and ’80s, GM’s Lordstown facility became the biggest employer in the area. At its peak, in 1968, it had a workforce of more than 12,000. Then GM closed the plant in 2019. Surveying the scene, you realize how much the economic future of this place depends on filling those parking lots.
That’s not going to happen anytime soon, if ever. Lordstown Motors Corp., an EV startup, bought the assembly site at the end of 2019 with the help of a loan from GM, thus becoming an anchor of the Voltage Valley idea. It promised the state of Ohio that it would employ more than 1,500 people over the next 15 years and in exchange got a tax credit. Even in its dying days, GM had three times that many people on its payroll making Chevrolet Cruze sedans at the plant.
Lordstown Motors has said it would start turning out electric pickup trucks by the end of this year. But doubts have been raised over its plans. A March report by short-seller Hindenburg Research questioned the company’s business strategy, prompting a shareholder lawsuit and a Securities and Exchange Commission probe. Lordstown Motors says that Hindenburg’s allegations about inflated sales figures and other questionable practices are unfair and that it’s on track to begin production.
Nearby, Ultium Cells LLC, a GM joint venture with South Korea’s LG Chem Ltd., is building a new plant to produce batteries. It’s pledging to hire more than 1,100 workers. A distribution center for big-box discount retailer TJX HomeGoods staged a partial opening at the end of April and has promised to eventually employ around 1,000 people. Add in ventures like JuggerBot that might be attracted to the area by the promise of working with either Ultium or Lordstown Motors, and you might come up with a few thousand more jobs.
To boosters, the new jobs are a sign of a local economy righting itself. But the bounce isn’t enough, says Tim Francisco, who runs Youngstown State’s working-class studies program. While GM has announced a strategic shift to EVs, he says, it’s relegated the Mahoning Valley to a supporting role. “It’s significant that GM isn’t building the vehicles here and is only building components,” Francisco says.
When Candidate Biden passed through Ohio last year, one of the people he sat down with was Youngstown Mayor Jamael Tito Brown. “Please don’t forget places like Youngstown,” Brown says he told Biden at the time. Brown, a Democrat who’s up for reelection in November, is confident that won’t happen. Biden’s $1.9 trillion Covid rescue plan is sending $88 million to the city. But the real proof of Biden’s commitment, Brown says, will come if the president’s pending infrastructure plans yield the federal funding Youngstown needs to fix its roads and rip up the lead pipes below them that still carry much of the city’s water.
For its part, Youngstown is focused heavily on training the workers needed to turn the vision of Voltage Valley into something concrete. “We’ve got to make sure that we take this opportunity to get a workforce that is ready,” Brown says.
The latest part of that effort is taking place at Youngstown State’s Excellence Training Center, situated in a former county jail across from the Greyhound bus station and funded by $12 million in state and federal grants. The plan is for Youngstown State engineering students to learn applied skills alongside future machinists and other factory-floor workers enrolled in programs run by Eastern Gateway Community College—the program may even include students from local high schools. “It’s a Disneyland of advanced manufacturing,” says David Sipusic, the center’s executive director.
It’s part of a bigger effort to transform downtown Youngstown into an industrial training hub, says Art Daly, senior vice president in charge of the community college’s Youngstown campus. Eastern Gateway already works with the Mahoning Valley Manufacturers Coalition to create training classes tailored to companies willing to pay trainees and work with local public agencies to sort out things such as free child care and transportation. But what comes next will be bigger than that.
On the frontlines of the training efforts are people like Vicki Young, a welding instructor at Eastern Gateway. As a Black Youngstown native, she grew up hearing her mother urge her to get an education and target white-collar careers. She took an indirect route and worked as a welder at Delphi Automotive, a parts maker, before turning to education almost two decades ago.
Young talks about welding in near-spiritual terms. “It’s how I handle stress,” she says. “I just go in there and turn on the welding machine, and everything just goes away.” Mindful of how her own vocation evolved, she acknowledges that many of her students will end up operating precision robots rather than wielding torches. But that’s OK, she says: “From running that robot to repairing that robot to installing that robot to programming that robot—those are still jobs that are done by individuals in the welding field.”
One night in April, Pastor Michael Harrison of Youngstown’s Union Baptist Church logs on to his computer to host an online forum with Mayor Brown and two challengers in a May 4 Democratic primary, which Brown will go on to win easily. The questions range across topics you’d expect in Youngstown, including the lack of a supermarket (a few discount grocery chains operate on the fringes of the city) and crime (the erstwhile power of mobsters once had newspapers dubbing the city “Crimetown”).
Then Harrison asks about jobs: “What are your plans to attract employment opportunities to the area that provide a living or a livable wage?” One challenger says he’d call “every business in Youngstown from A to Z” to ask them what they need. When Brown’s turn comes, he offers what sounds like a platitude: “We’ve got to let everyone know that Youngstown is open for business.”
Harrison doesn’t betray it during the candidate forum, but over the years he’s grown skeptical of what feels like an endless procession of bets on “industries of the future.” His own congregation has halved in size over the years. All the while, politicians have peddled their promises—a “new Youngstown” that sounded a lot like an unobtainable version of a distant past or, as in Trump’s case, a return of the steel mills. “It gives you that hope,” Harrison says. “But it was a lie.”
For all the talk about next big things or the notion that there’s a Voltage Valley on the other side of that bleak hill, there are stories that drive home just how intractable some of Youngstown’s ills are. Shortly after midnight one day last September, firefighters were called to a blaze at what used to be a Kroger supermarket. Which seems unremarkable. Until you learn from a local TV report on the incident that the store closed in 1982—and that only weeks before the fire, Youngstown’s “blight remediation superintendent” had told the TV station the city wanted to demolish the abandoned building but didn’t have the money.
Pat Rosenthal and Jim Converse met during an ill-fated 1970s effort by an employee group to buy and revive a shuttered steel mill in Youngstown. Over the years, Rosenthal plied her trade as an activist lawyer, and Converse started a business with his brother recycling the detritus left behind in abandoned steel mills. In 1989, hoping to create jobs after the local steel industry collapsed, Rosenthal founded Common Wealth Inc., where Converse serves as community economic development director.
After decades of fighting for Youngstown, Rosenthal and Converse struggle to muster much optimism about the future of the city. Converse figures Youngstown is destined for a life as a haven for low-paying jobs. Rosenthal complains that for too long city leaders have failed to plan for the long haul. “That’s my big disappointment,” she says. “It feels like they are always grabbing for the low-hanging fruit.”
But together, as tens of millions of dollars in federal money flowed through Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley to mixed effect, Rosenthal and Converse have done the kind of work that suggests that community activism, though small in scale, may occasionally offer more durable solutions to local problems. Common Wealth’s Grow Elm Street project, for instance, has helped retrofit eight buildings for small businesses and created a dozen affordable apartments.
In one of its more unusual adventures, Common Wealth acquired a corner bar on Elm Street after a police bust and transformed it into a “kitchen incubator,” providing equipment, technical assistance, and marketing advice to food entrepreneurs in a space where a local Mafia figure once ran a cocaine ring. Since its creation, the incubator has helped some 260 businesses that make everything from hot sauce to gourmet dog food.
Common Wealth’s biggest recent success story, Prepped Wellness, is a four-year-old subscription meal business that takes over the kitchen incubator each weekend to prepare as many as 2,500 meals for customers as far away as Pittsburgh. For a fee, Prepped Wellness cooks and delivers healthy meals to subscribers once a week. The menu recently included a Korean tofu rice bowl with green beans, cod cacciatore, and cilantro lime chicken, along with egg quiche cups and fruit for breakfast. Prepped Wellness is now the kitchen’s biggest user.
Gino West, the founder, came to Youngstown from Pennsylvania, a jazz drummer pursuing a music performance degree at the university only to become a nutritionist and health-food evangelist instead. His business’s success led him to take over the cafe attached to Common Wealth’s kitchen incubator earlier this year in a bid to cater to students from nearby Youngstown State. West is looking to expand Prepped Wellness’s client roster in the Pittsburgh suburbs, an hour’s drive away, and is talking to retirement communities about providing the service to their residents. He’s also setting up small grab-and-go locations where you can pick up, say, a coffee and a wrap. All of this means jobs in the form of a small but growing band of cooks and delivery drivers.
West says he’s come to realize that part of the key to his success is Youngstown itself. Its location means that he can see catering to bigger metropolises like Pittsburgh and Cleveland and their affluent suburbs, all within easy driving distance. Precisely because it’s seen and is still seeing hard times, Youngstown is also a cheap place to live and run a business.
It also helps, West says, that he’s part of a new corps of entrepreneurs who all lean on each other for advice in Youngstown, whose environs have historically been a breeding ground for a surprising number of startups from Good Humor, the ice cream company, in the 1920s to Arby’s, the sandwich chain, in the 1960s. He inhabits the sort of entrepreneurial ecosystem that the federal government is setting out to create for electric vehicles and 3D printing. Only it’s one growing up more organically. “I need Youngstown as much as Youngstown needs me,” he says.
Donnan covers economics from Washington.