YOUNGSTOWN - From a rusting plant being returned to production to a new academic program to train workers quickly, the Mahoning Valley got a glimpse Wednesday of its future.
"We're truly seeing the transformation of our local and regional economies. It's historical," Girard Mayor James Melfi said after VAM USA LLC, a sister company to V&M Star, announced a $57 million renovation of a long-empty steel mill at V&M's Youngstown complex on the Girard border for a finishing plant.
"This is a time in our history where we'll look back and remember and tell our kids about," Don Crane, president of the Western Reserve Building Trades Council that will supply many of the 100 construction workers for the project.
YSU's Dr. Martin Abraham speaks about new courses in the natural gas field at YSU.
The VAM news followed an announcement by Youngstown State University that it is starting an academic course to train professional workers for the shale natural gas drilling industry.
Both announcements came at the first Youngstown Ohio Utica & Natural Gas Conference at the Covelli Centre in downtown Youngstown, an event organizers called the largest industrial trade show in area history.
Eric Planey of the organizing Regional Chamber said it attracted about 1,300 visitors for the morning public session, then a sellout of 65 exhibitors and 700 attendees to the afternoon business portion.
The VAM plant is projected to employ about 100 full-time workers at full production, most to be hired locally by applying only at www.vmjobsonline.com.
Workers already have exposed the steel trusses on the former Youngstown Sheet & Tube steel plate mill, which Melfi said has sat empty for more than 30 years, a casualty in the area's steel industry collapse starting in 1977.
VAM President Judson Wallace said production is scheduled to begin in phases in mid-2012, ramping up to full production by the end of 2013.
Officials said the site was chosen to make the operation as efficient as possible, instead of shipping product back to Houston.
"Expanding in Youngstown makes sense for as as it brings us very close to customers working in both the Marcellus and Utica shales, where business is booming," Wallace said in a statement.
Wages and benefits will be similar to those paid at V&M Star, said Joel Mastervich, V&M Star president. Roughly 350 workers at the company's new pipe mill are expected to earn $50,000 to $80,000 a year, with a wide range of benefits, as the operation moves toward full production by the end of 2012.
The mill will thread premium connections onto steel pipes made at the new next-door V&M Star pipe mill, where more than 1,000 construction workers will be on the job this winter. The plant also will be able to thread pipe made by other companies.
The company said premium connections are made to prevent high-pressure gas leaks through the long string of casing as drillers punch holes a mile or more into the earth's surface to tap gas and oil-bearing shale rock deposits.
Some of the connections must be flexible and secure enough to able to withstand pressure as the drilling bends horizontally in different directions - a critical part of the process to extract as much gas and oil as possible from one drill site.
Still on the table is a new melt shop, where workers would melt scrap steel to make pipe. Mastervich said only that the shop remains in the company's strategic plan.
YSU plans to help V&M companies, plus drilling parts makers, water treatment operations and others expected to come into the area, with its new Natural Gas and Water Resources Institute.
Expected to be approved this spring by YSU trustees, the program will provide bachelor's degree level courses in science and engineering that will lead to an academic minor in technologies needed in the natural gas industry, including chemistry, civil engineering and geology.
Martin Abraham, dean of the university's College of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, or STEM, said students getting a four-year degree could earn the minor in 20 credit hours, or a little more than a semester.
"We think by May 2013 we'll have graduates," he said, adding speed is important because companies are ramping up jobs. One recent study suggested that 200,000-plus jobs will be created by Utica Shale work, including nearly 9,000 in professional and technical services.
The institute also will do offer research to companies, not only in finding and extracting gas and oil but doing it responsibly.
"We know how to do remote sensing, separation of fracking chemicals in water. We want to be able to participate with those extracting resources, and do it cleanly," he said.