The $3.3 million conversion of an 88-year-old downtown department store into a business incubator for high-tech energy start-up companies was promised to be up and running by mid-2011.
Instead, the building remains in a state of disrepair on Warren's Courthouse Square, leaving even the chief executive of the Tech Belt Energy Innovation Center to admit that some clients have been waiting months for space to help them advance projects developing clean technology, energy creation and storage.
''We are working with people to find temporary space,'' said Dave Nestic, chief executive of regional operations for TBEIC (pronounced T-bike). ''(Clients) have been patient. We have people that have needed space for six months.''
Construction workers Jason Hatala, left, Bob Hinton, center, and Bill Norman, right, from DeSalvo Construction of Hubbard apply a vapor barrier to an exterior wall in April as construction continues at the TBEIC building along W. Market Street in downtown Warren.
Repeated delays coupled with ongoing announcements of more grant funding have some detractors doubting the project ever will come to fruition and wondering why public money is being used to force a high-tech project into an historic location they say is neither suitable nor realistic.
One entrepreneur even got so frustrated with delays, he resorted to starting his own incubator.
Top management at Quality Switch, a Newton Falls-based company that makes high voltage switches for use primarily in transformers and load centers, said they were referred to TBEIC repeatedly as they searched for a domestic location to run very high voltage tests.
''We saw this as a way for this area to set itself apart from others,'' said Quality Switch Vice President Jeremy Sewell. ''We thought it was an opportunity until we actually saw they were planning on putting this lab in the Kresge Building.''
Sewell expressed disappointment as he perused TBEIC's website portraying photos of what appears to be a high-tech computer center: ''They have had this website up. It makes it look like they have something, and they have nothing but a rundown building.''
The building project is being funded largely through public grants and some private sources. Those include $1.63 million of a $2.2 million allocation from the U.S. Department of Energy, $1.1 million in bridge financing to be repaid by private investors and $983,750 in state historic preservation tax credits, along with other sources.
The project first was announced in 2010, with promises that phase 1 would be complete by mid-2011. That date was later adjusted to 2012. More than three years behind the original target date, TBEIC officials and government leaders involved in the center's creation blame changes in Department of Energy leadership and now say they are shooting for completion of the first phase by the end of 2014.
For now, TBEIC operates out of a small office in the basement of the nearby Wean Foundation building on the Square.
TBEIC's building is a 27,000-square-foot structure that first opened in 1926 as S.S. Kresge ''five & dime'' store at 125 West Market St. It was selected for TBEIC because planners, including board chairman and Warren attorney John Pogue, believed it could serve a dual purpose: allow TBEIC to develop advanced energy technologies and help achieve Warren's revitalization plan for downtown commercial properties. The site was chosen by a TBEIC site selection committee from among 20 properties in the Warren area, according to an autumn 2010 Youngstown State University newsletter and Tribune Chronicle archives. YSU's College of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics was a key partner in the concept from inception.
The agreement to purchase the building from Taylor Holdings Co., was announced in October 2010. The building had been home to Market on the Square, a shop selling crafts, arts and gifts made by local artisans. It was managed by Holly Taylor Meyer, a daughter of Warren area businessman John Taylor who is principal owner of Taylor Holding Co.
Taylor's other daughter, Shelley Taylor-Odille, who serves as TBEIC's vice president, was aware of a potential conflict of interest and did not participate in discussions about the purchase and abstained from voting, Pogue said.
''She didn't have any input. She stepped out of those meetings and didn't participate in any way shape or form,'' Pogue said.
At the time the purchase was announced, planners said they expected to be up and running by mid 2011. However, Trumbull County Auditor's records show the $250,000 purchase did not even transfer until seven months later on May 4, 2011, and within a month, TBEIC officials changed their projection to a mid-2012 opening.
U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Howland, who has been closely involved in the TBEIC vision from the beginning, acknowledged recently that criticism of the long-delayed project is ''legitimate.'' During his 2010 re-election campaign, Ryan said the building would be remodeled and TBEIC would be purchasing furniture by the following March.
While he believes no one could have anticipated the project taking this long, he still believes giving up now is not the answer.
''We don't even have it off the ground yet,'' he said, implying that it's too early to criticize it.
Since receiving a $2.2 million grant in 2010, Nestic says the U.S. Department of Energy has seen rapid turnover and now is on its fourth new program manager. With each federal staffing change, Nestic said the new managers have spent time re-examining the allocation before agreeing to release the funds.
Pogue pointed out that funding also was slowed during last year's government shutdown.
Ryan, who helped obtain the $2.2 million federal Department of Energy grant in 2010, noted one of the difficulties met by TBEIC has been getting the U.S. Department of Energy to release money to reimburse entities like YSU, which have fronted costs associated with the incubator so far. YSU, Ryan said, has been paid back only half of the $1 million or so it has put out for TBEIC.
''No one is going to keep paying unless they are going to get paid,'' said Ryan. ''We've got to be persistent. I'm frustrated, we're all frustrated, but the reality is the energy sector is going to explode at some point. New technologies take a long time to come online.''
Planning for TBEIC began in 2009. The board formed and early funding was secured in 2010.
''It probably would have been easier if the funding were just to build a program,'' Nestic acknowledged as he walked through the building recently. A small crew of construction workers, hammering on the second floor, had recently resumed work after being halted due to funding questions by new leadership at the U.S. Department of Energy.
''Just a few weeks ago we got it back on track. That enabled us to finish the roof,'' Nestic said.
He stepped over litter and debris and avoided holes in the floor and stairwells. At one point while he spoke, a huge chunk of ceiling crashed to the floor just feet from him.
Still, Nestic believes in the location.
''The benefits are downtown Warren will have a renovated building,'' Nestic said.
Plans include a reception area, offices and open space for cubicle farms, conference room, seating area, kitchenette and a renewable energy lab. Initially, he expects the facility to accommodate about 10 startup companies.
''I knew it was going to be a big undertaking. I predicted 24 months, and it's gone longer than that,'' Nestic said.
Pogue said despite delays, he has no regrets about choosing this location.
''I like it. The location is great. The reason we picked that building is because it's downtown. It's a terrific floor plan, with lab space to do different kinds of testing, access to outdoor space to bring in the power needs that we want,'' Pogue said.
Warren's mayor, who in 2012 pledged $250,000 to help fund TBEIC's outreach and entrepreneurial support programs, said he also still believes in the programs and the location.
''I would say that the outreach to potential businesses and prospective clients has progressed faster than the construction phase,'' Mayor Doug Franklin said earlier this month. ''It's been a long process, but I believe it'll be worth it once the doors finally open.''
He said he has no reservations about challenges of adapting a nearly century-old building to house a high-tech electricity lab and startup companies.
''Believe me, the tax credits wouldn't have been awarded if it wasn't a viable project - to put a project like that in a historical building,'' he said.
The mayor was referring to the $983,750 in Ohio Historic Preservation Tax Credits awarded in December 2012 for the restoration project.
Officials with the Ohio Development Services Agency in Columbus said despite delays with the project, TBEIC remains on schedule under their requirements to maintain the Ohio Historic Preservation Tax Credits. The organization has until mid-October to show construction progress, officials said.
That does not appease Niles inventor Bob Jadloski.
Jadloski, a member of the Youngstown-Warren Inventors Association, operates iDK Technologies to market inventions including the "GeoVolt," which converts unused pressure - like that emitted in the natural gas drilling process - into energy, along with his own invention, the Fuel Assist Cell, which reduces automobile emissions and increases fuel mileage. He said he first learned of TBEIC's plans several years ago, and has been in contact with TBEIC officials numerous times since.
''The incubator (TBEIC) wanted to build us a business plan and asked, 'how much money do you need?' That's not what we were looking for. We needed a place to show our wares,'' Jadloski said. ''Almost five years and $3.5 million, and they have nothing. They have a building, and they have nobody in there.''
After becoming so frustrated with the delays, Jadloski decided to start his own green incubator.
Late last year he leased a 5,000-square foot-space that formerly housed Optiview Vision Center at 1040 Youngstown-Warren Road in Niles. He calls it the ''Niles Innovation Center'' and hopes to house up to eight environmentally safe business startups, including green energy.
And now that he's up and running, Jadloski says he even is willing to temporarily house startup businesses that are waiting for space from TBEIC. He said he's been in recent talks with Nestic about mutual benefits.
For Jadloski, there's no time to spare.
''When the opportunity opens, I better go through it or it's going to slam shut,'' Jadloski said.