YOUNGSTOWN - The head of the Youngstown-Warren Regional Chamber knows well how difficult change can be.
That was apparent more than 20 years ago when plans were in the works to merge the Warren and Niles Chambers of Commerce with the Youngstown Area Chamber to form the Youngstown-Warren Regional Chamber.
"Change is very, very difficult. It's painful," Youngstown-Warren Regional Chamber President and CEO Tom Humphries said recently. "But I believe you change things before they break. You don't wait for it to be broken. You don't wait for it to be worn out."
Humphries had served as chairman of the Warren Chamber's board of directors at the time of the merger.
The proposed consolidation was a vision of those involved with the Niles, Warren and Youngstown chambers in the early 1990s who believed that simply too much duplication existed in the local economic development picture.
Despite strong opposition, largely from Niles and Trumbull County leadership, the group forged on, touting the potential for more economic and political clout. Delicate negotiations lasted for about eight months and included a formal contracted independent study before the sides finally reached agreement.
Decades later, the Youngstown-Warren Regional Chamber this year celebrated its 20th year as a regional chamber.
Membership alone nearly doubled in that time, growing from a combined membership of 1,364 in 1993 to 2,570 as a regional chamber today. The organization last year was involved in discussions to bring 17 new development projects worth $574.78 million to the Mahoning Valley. During the 20 years since its merger, the Regional Chamber has been involved in 474 projects worth $4.3 billion in investment. Jobs retained during that period numbered 28,176, Humphries said.
"If you look at back then, we had no retention plan, but now we visit over 1,000 companies each year to see what they need and how we can assist," Humphries said.
The move to formulate a regional chamber came at the same time and largely for the same reasons that a group of prominent Trumbull County business people also created Trumbull 100. A native of Warren, attorney William Letson who was the visionary for Trumbull 100s creation, acknowledged recently that the loss of Trumbull County's chamber of commerce was part of the impetus for creation of Trumbull 100. The group works for the betterment of Warren and Trumbull County communities.
"We had lost a Trumbull County Chamber of Commerce, and the weight of the chamber had shifted to Mahoning County. When we had our local Chamber of Commerce, there were more business people in the community. We had a local director. But that disappeared as well, and that was a sad loss for the community," Letson recalled. "Part of the reason this club made sense was because we no longer had our own Chamber of Commerce."
Letson was clear, though, that the creation of Trumbull 100 never was an attempt to create a new chamber.
And while Trumbull business people may have seen the move as a shift toward Mahoning County, Humphries and Regional Chamber Vice President for Economic Development Sarah Boyarko don't see it that way.
"The platform that we compete at - Warren can't compete all by itself in a global economy," Humphries said.
Boyarko has noted that recent economic development efforts have tended to weigh heavily toward Trumbull County.
Just last week, for example, a Lordstown deal closed on a $690,000 property transfer and plans for a $100 million, 200,000 aluminum manufacturing facility in Lordstown.
Trumbull County businessman John Taylor, also a member of Trumbull 100 since its inception, spoke highly of the Regional Chamber's accomplishments, including those of Humphries, who took over in 1997 as Regional Chamber president and CEO, and Boyarko.
"I think they have done a fabulous job and we have had some really good economic development people over the years," Taylor said. "They have got the horses and the juice, and they know what needs to be done."
It was that regionalization, in fact, that created enough political and economic clout to drive projects like the retention of General Motors Lordstown complex when it was listed for potential closure in 1997 and the retention of the Youngstown Air Reserve Station in Vienna in 2005 despite being targeted on a list of hundreds of proposed military facility closings nationwide, Humphries said. Campaigns orchestrated largely by the Regional Chamber helped retain those facilities.
But it's the companies and the workers that Humphries credits for those success stories.
"This labor force and management at Lordstown (GM) were key. I think you have one of the best work forces out there producing one of the greatest products right now," Humphries said.
Understanding the ebb and flow of mineral production, Humphries said the chamber made a conscious decision to focus the supply chain industry in the oil and gas drilling business, to ensure economic development with staying power.
"We asked what industry do they need to support those opportunities?" Humphries said. "So we went after the Exterrans and the TMK Ipscos and other supply chain companies. When we talk about over 1,935 new jobs and 1,850 indirect jobs to support the industry, that is what our focus was. Our goal was to compete against Pennsylvania and Canton and south."
Once companies come, others come with them.
And new pockets of jobs have come not only in manufacturing. Likewise, they've come locally in service industry, entertainment, telemarketing, warehousing and distribution and food processing. It's that diversity that helps secure future vitality and growth of the area.
"I'm proud of what we have done. We don't just focus on one," Humphries said. "We are out chasing a variety of opportunities."