Geography created a great disadvantage to the Mahoning Valley when it came to the manufacturing of steel in the earlier part of the 20th century, one local expert says.
The cost of shipping materials in and finished products out of Youngstown and Warren, compared to mills on the shores of the Great Lakes, for example, was significant, Dr. Thomas E. Leary of Youngstown State University's History Department recounted recently.
Ironically, it could be said that just as geography contributed to the demise of the local industry 35 years ago today, location is now expected to lead to a bright new economic future for the Mahoning Valley and new resurgence in American manufacturing linked to the oil and gas industry.
The collapse of the Valley's steel industry began Sept. 19, 1977, when Lykes Corp. shut down its Campbell Works, wiping out more than 4,000 jobs. The day is remembered as ''Black Monday.''
The Valley had been losing manufacturing jobs since the peak years of 1973 and 1974, but the demise of the Campbell mill, Sheet & Tube, sent a tidal wave up the Mahoning River, eventually swamping two U.S. Steel mills, Republic Steel and Sheet & Tube's Brier Hill Works. Mills that had helped win World War II and rebuild ruined nations were left to rust away.
Unemployment reached a depression-level 25 percent in Youngstown and Mahoning County by the early 1980s, reaching even the man who would go on eventually to become the mayor of Campbell, William VanSuch.
Tribune Chronicle file
The Campbell Works is shown while still in operation. Lykes Corp. shuttered the mill on Sept. 19, 1977, and wiped out more than 4,000 jobs on what is now known as ‘‘Black Monday.’’
VanSuch, the third member of his family to work at the Campbell mill, recalled losing his job and having three small children at home.
''I did what I had to do,'' VanSuch said, including cutting grass or whatever odd jobs he could find until he finally settled into something more permanent as a car salesman.
VanSuch will offer opening comments at an event this morning planned to mark Black Monday's anniversary.
Leary recently outlined some of the background on the steel industry's downfall.
''Most of the companies that operated here also had plants elsewhere,'' Leary said, noting that when the companies made decisions about which plants would be the recipients of new technology and upgrades, they often would make those investments, like oxygen steelmaking, for example, in the plants closer to Lake Erie and Lake Michigan.
''The decision was invest first in their best-located plants, then if there's anything left over, it might go to Youngstown,'' he said.
Leary, and the professor in residence at Youngstown's Labor and Industry Museum, spoke recently in the museum's upstairs archive room. Downstairs, displays and exhibits outline the history of the Mahoning Valley's manufacturing industry, including its downfall.
Warren's Republic Steel had been the only local plant to be upgraded with the oxygen steelmaking system in the 1960s, Leary said, probably because the plant was commercially viable due largely to its product mix at the time which consisted of flat-rolled steel.
The lack of upgrades to the local mills, sluggish demand, rising competition from imports and costs of shipping inland created a perfect storm that ultimately drove the steel mills to close their doors locally.
Statistics show that nationwide the steel industry which had employed 471,000 in July 1977, had dropped 18,000 workers within three months.
News stories at the time reported that steelmakers publicly blamed their woes on issues like environmental restrictions and growing imports. Industry critics blamed poor, short-sighted company management.
The federal government and then-President Jimmy Carter reacted by forming an inter-agency task force to study the steel industry's problems, but there was no federal bailout.
Now, 35 years later, the Mahoning Valley is continuing its long economic climb back, with help to keep it viable from the automotive industry and now big plans for economic growth expected to be brought about by the location of natural gas pockets in the Utica Shale, deep beneath eastern Ohio and the Mahoning Valley.
''What we try to communicate is what's happened in the last 18 months,'' Youngstown-Warren Regional Chamber President and CEO Thomas M. Humphries said.
That's $1.5 billion spent on facilities linked to the Utica Shale, not counting the money invested to secure mineral rights.
Youngstown's V&M Star, which manufactures the steel tubes used in the natural gas drilling process, chose to locate and expand its $650 million plant here due largely to proximity to Utica Shale. Houston-based Exterran chose Youngstown for the location of its first new plant in 15 years, also due to the location of the Utica Shale.
Projects like these, Humphries said, will drive other businesses to the region.
''Suppliers need to be closer to them,'' Humphries said. "And we are starting to see their competitors saying, 'They moved up here from Houston, why aren't we there?' We are just at the beginning of these opportunities."
A study commissioned by the Ohio Chamber of Commerce released earlier this year analyzing the potential for economic growth stemming from the Utica Shale in Ohio indicates related employment could reach 65,680 by 2014. That's up from the 2,275 Ohio shale-related jobs in 2011. Breakdowns by geographical areas of Ohio were not available.
''There's a huge opportunity, and we are just at a start of it,'' Humphries said. ''Nobody would invest a million dollars if they don't see a promising future.''