It’s a story of a region that went through a tough economic shift that ultimately caused unemployment to increase and the loss of jobs held for generations. Though it sounds oddly familiar, this story was told during a recent SOAR meeting at Pine Mountain State Park by the former mayor of Youngstown, Ohio, Jay Williams.
“This is a man who deeply identifies with our chore here (in eastern Kentucky),” said Congressman Hal Rogers.
Williams, prior to announcing a $312,000 investment into the SOAR initiative from the U.S. Economic Development Administration, told the story of Youngstown. He mentioned that at any point in the story you could almost substitute Youngstown and insert a city like Pikeville and replace steel with coal.
Williams explained Youngstown defined themselves by the steel industry, much like most of Appalachia Kentucky defines themselves by the coal industry. In 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced it was closing the doors.
“For decades, it was the heart and soul and it was gone almost overnight,” said Williams.
Williams said Youngstown went through several changes from 1950-2000. Population decreased 58 percent, dwelling units decreased 20 percent and vacant land increased 12 percent.
“We lost over 30,000 jobs just in a period between mid-1970s to mid-1990s,” said Williams. “We were the poster child for failure…”
Williams said the jobs lost were high paying manufacturing jobs. He said families would work those jobs for generations.
“We spent the next 25 years…waiting for the future, waiting for someone to fix and re-establish the identity that we had known and been so proud of,” said Williams.
Williams said it wasn’t until the early 2000s until the city embarked on a new vision and initiative. A vision the former mayor compared to SOAR.
Williams said in 2002, there was a meeting a week before Christmas where people showed up to talk about the future of their community. He said a vision and a plan was created.
The vision included accepting that Youngstown was going to be a smaller city. They wanted to improve the city’s image, enhance the quality of life and understand their role in the global economy.
After embarking on their new vision, which included some industry shift, the city eventually made a list they never thought they would make, according to Williams. They made the top-10 list for cities to start a business.
Anthony Cloud can be reached at 606-302-9090 or on Twitter @AnthonyCloudMDN.