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Top 10 of 2021

A year of stories

WARREN — From millions in investments to bolster and expand manufacturing and distribution capabilities in the Mahoning Valley to perhaps the only new department store opening in the U.S. to the ups and downs of a electric-vehicle manufacturer trying to gain a foothold, business-related news in the region was wide-ranging.

At the same time, it was mostly positive with the promise of growth and future prosperity. So without further delay, here are the top 10 business-related news stories for 2021:

1. Winding road for Lordstown Motors Corp.

Most of this year wasn’t terribly kind to Lordstown Motors Corp., the startup electric truck company operating in the former General Motors assembly plant in Lordstown, but it appears the company has begun to turn a corner as of late.

It was in January when a developmental prototype of the company’s flagship vehicle, the Endurance truck, caught fire on its maiden road test outside of Detroit, and then in March, an investment firm known for short-selling stocks ripped Lordstown Motors in a lengthy report, alleging the company misled its investors regarding preorders and production schedule for the truck.

That report spawned several lawsuits. The company also found itself over the year the subject of a federal law enforcement investigation and an investigation by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission related to its merger with special purpose acquisition company DiamondPeak Holdings.

In March, the company hit a milestone with the production of its first beta vehicles.

In June, the company’s founder and CEO, Steve Burns, and its chief financial officer, Julio Rodriguez, resigned. No reason was given for the resignation, but the move came in tune with an admission by the company that statements regarding preorders for the Endurance were inaccurate.

Lordstown Motors’ President Rich Schmidt later left the company in November.

And over the course of the year, the company’s stock has tumbled 80 percent. It hit a 52-week low earlier this month.

It was in August with the appointment of auto industry veteran Dan Ninivaggi as chief executive the company started to rebound, movement that started in earnest under interim CEO Angela Strand, who was the first to announce the company was looking to leverage its biggest asset — the factory — to advance.

The company announced in September it had an agreement in principle with Foxconn, a Taiwan-based maker of electronics, to sell the plant for $230 million. In November, it was announced the sides a definitive asset agreement.

They also agreed to pursue a contract manufacturing agreement for the Endurance pickup truck and a joint venture agreement to co-design and develop vehicle programs for the global commercial fleet market

Closing on the plant deal is targeted for April.

2. Millions invested

Companies this year weren’t shy about investing to grow their operations, from production to retail fulfillment and to make their operation more efficient. They include:

・ Chattanooga, Tenn.-based M&M Industries, which makes plastic pails, started production at its new plant in Lordstown, the former Magna Seating Systems. And already, the company is looking to expand more than 70,000 square feet there, its president / CEO said at an event in October.

The first shipments from the plant were made in early October. M&M manufactures pails and packaging for pool chemicals, bioscience, laboratory and pharmaceutical as well as specialty paint and food products.

The investment was about $38 million.

・ In March, Thomas Steel Strip announced plans to invest $8.5 million in its West Market Street plant and hire 42 new workers to support its entry into the rechargeable battery market.

The investment is on new machinery and equipment for the new product line.

The company in Warren for more than 100 years provides a wide range of electroplated steel that’s incorporated in products like alkaline and rechargeable batteries, automotive applications, sporting ammunition and decorative products. It also produces cold-rolled and plated steel products for automotive, construction, packaging, engineering and other industries.

・ It was May when at Wheatland Tube in Howland the announcement of a $30 million investment was made to add on to the plant.

The 85,000-square-foot expansion will be a fully automated storage and retrieval warehouse that also will lead to greater productivity, a higher quality product and better customer service, Barry Zekelman, chairman / CEO of Zekelman Industries, said.

The plant, part of Zekelman Industries, mostly produces low pressure water, gas and air conveyance pipe for building infrastructure, but it does make a small percentage used in energy applications.

・ In Warren Township, Transglobal, a company that manufactures a variety of products for the transportation industry, including composite and wooden roll-up doors for delivery vehicles, is investing up to $7.5 million in the township to build and equip a new factory.

Transglobal, one of the leading roll-up door makers in the U.S., already has contracts with Rivian and General Motors to produce the doors for the automakers’ electric delivery trucks.

・ In April, Old Dominion Freight Line opened a new $10 million transportation hub and freight yard on state Route 45 in Lordstown. The company moved from its prior location on State Street in Girard for more room.

3. Powering up Ultium Cells

It was in February when the last of the 14,000 steel beams that make up the skeleton of the Ultium Cells electric-vehicle battery-cell factory was set into place, marking a major milestone in the construction of the 2.8 million-square-foot factory in Lordstown.

Now, exterior construction is 95 complete. The building is enclosed and process equipment is being installed, said Brooke Waid, Ultium Cells spokeswoman. Remaining exterior work includes utilities, lobby entrance, perimeter fencing, final paving and landscaping and traffic light on Tod Avenue.

Equipment installation is about 15 percent complete. Equipment installation will be phased through 2023 for the multiple cell assembly lines.

Production is on track to begin in August, Waid said.

The $2.3 billion plant on 158 acres is a joint venture between General Motors and South Korea’s LG Energy Solution to mass produce battery cells for electric vehicles. It is adjacent to GM’s former assembly complex.

The facility will employ upward of 1,000 at full capacity.

Waid said the company had about 150 employees at the end of 2021 and anticipates to be at 600 by the end of 2022 and at more than 1,100 by end of 2023. Most recently, Ultium began hiring production and quality and maintenance employees.

4. Valley welcomes Boscov’s

The line to shop at the new Boscov’s department store when it opened Oct. 7 started to form before the sun rose that day. Nearly 1,000 people were waiting to get inside when the doors opened at 10 a.m. and thousands more shopped there throughout the first day, making the day No. 1 of a three-day grand opening celebration a tremendous success.

The store at the Eastwood Mall is the 49th in the Boscov’s chain and third at a mall owned / operated by the Cafaro Company.

The gigantic 180,000-square-foot store occupies about one-third of the mall’s west concourse, including the 140,00-square-foot former Sears department store.

It features a wide range of departments from a beloved candy counter to optical and hearing centers with extra value-added customer services features like free gift wrapping for any item purchased.

That is what, in part, sets Boscov’s apart from other retailers.

“We have departments that other department stores have given up on, candy, toys, petites …,” said Jim Boscov, company chief executive.

Other sources of pride include a broad range of products within each department that are often priced less than competitors — for example, the retailer carries upward of 20 different models of coffee maker — and customer service.

It was announced in January 2020 the Reading, Pa.-based retailer would locate at the mall with a planned opening in October 2020, but the pandemic delayed things about a year.

But when it did open in October, the response was immense. In addition, the opening raised more than $100,000 for local nonprofit groups.

5. Delphi retirees keep up their best fight

The group of Delphi retirees fighting for their lost pensions came into the year hopeful a review of their situation by the Biden administration would result in the restoration of their retirement benefits, but ultimately that would not be the case.

It wasn’t until August the administration responded — and after the urging by lawmakers — that it was determined congressional action was needed to restore the pensions, lost when the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation took over the pensions when Delphi went bankrupt in 2009.

But even before that, the group — the Delphi Salaried Retirees Association — asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case they brought after the PBGC slashed their pensions, some by as much as 70 percent.

So far, attorneys general from six states, including Ohio’s Dave Yost, and 17 members of Congress, including U.S. Reps. Tim Ryan, D-Howland, and Bill Johnson, R-Marietta, and U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, have filed briefs with the urging for the review.

In October, Ryan said he, U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, also among the 17, and other lawmakers who represent areas with affected constituents taking a legislative approach to fix the problem and restore the pensions.

The retirees group took their fight to the Supreme Court after an appeals court sided with a lower federal court judge’s decision in Michigan to dismiss the case against the PBGC.

6. Excellence Training Center opens at YSU

The Excellence Training Center at Youngstown State University started as a vision to sharpen the Mahoning Valley’s skilled workforce, evolved into a $12 million facility and continues to develop because “it’s the outcomes that come from this building that are the key,” said Jim Tressel, YSU president at the opening of the state-of-the-art facility in July.

The 54,000-square-foot facility on West Commerce Street is considered the centerpiece of the regional effort to create a workforce development ecosystem to meet the growing needs of the region’s emerging high-tech markets.

The two-story research and innovation center has space for additive manufacturing research and design, automation and robotics training, CNC (computerized numerical control) machining classes, metrology and CT scanning, and industrial maintenance training.

In addition, the center has what’s billed as a “Foundry of the Future” that includes advanced mold-making technology and office suites that can be rented by industry partners.

Said David Sipusic, YSU associate general counsel for research and executive director of the training center, the center is going to be a place “where workforce, education, research and development and community projects live.”

7. Redevelopment planned for Republic / RG property

It was January when it became public the owner of the former Republic Steel and RG Steel site, BDM Warren Steel Holdings LLC, wanted to donate more than 800 acres on Pine Avenue SE to the Western Reserve Port Authority.

Later, BDM came back to the port authority about acquiring 200 more acres adjacent to the site, west of the Cleveland Cliffs coke plant.

That land would be used to connect the 825 acres — already one of the largest, if not the largest shovel-ready sites in Ohio — to points west, including a prime industrial development and a transportation corridor in Lordstown.

The port authority and BDM signed the papers in November to donate the land, the larger portion of which received a clean bill of health from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. The agency in October granted a covenant not to sue after BDM completed remediation at the site. The covenant protects the owner or future owners from being legally responsible to the state for further environmental investigation and cleanup.

The smaller 200-acre site has undergone an initial environmental hazard assessment. Remediation, depending on the cost to cleanup the smaller, 200-acre site, could begin as soon as this year.

The property was used to produce multiple forms of steel from 1912 to 2012. The last steel producer was RG Steel, which sold the mill to BDM in 2012, when RG Steel went bankrupt. BDM immediately started looking for a new buyer. With none in sight, BDM auctioned parts of the mill in spring 2013 and began tearing down buildings and started to market the land. The blast furnace, the last remaining one in Trumbull and Mahoning counties, was torn down in 2017.

8. Boosting power in Lordstown

Work started and continues by FirstEnergy to boost the electric supply in Lordstown to support the demand for power in the growing electric-vehicle industry in the village.

The Akron-based electric company is investing $32 million, part of which will be spent on a high-voltage power line to meet the future needs of Ultium Cells. The 3.5-mile line will connect a substation on Highland Avenue to a new substation, called Magellan, immediately behind the factory on Tod Avenue SW.

The cost for this phase — phase two of a two-part project — is about $12 million. Work on it is expected to be completed in April.

The $20 million first phase was construction of a new more than 100,000-square-foot substation behind the Tod Avenue plant and a half-mile, high-voltage transmission line that connects to an existing high-voltage line nearby.

Phase one was completed in the spring.

“The idea was to provide an extra source of power to meet the high-energy demands of the Ultium Cells facility,” said FirstEnergy spokeswoman Lauren Siburkis. The substation on Highland would have met the plant’s needs, “but as production ramps up and they need more energy in the years to come, this was a way for them to not only have backup power sources, but meet their energy demands for the entire future here in Lordstown.”

When complete, the new line also will bolster the regional transmission system to benefit thousands of residents and businesses in Lordstown.

“While the intention for this project is to support Ultium Cells, it has benefits for about 15,000 residents and businesses in the Lordstown area because what this will do, it will provide a backup power feed for all of the customers in the area in the event their primary line is taken out of service,” Siburkis said.

9. Farmers grows assets

Late June was when it was announced that Farmers National Banc Corp., holding company for Farmers National Bank, was going to acquire competitor Cortland Bancorp in a stock and cash deal worth $124 million.

Early November was when the transaction finalized, putting the Canfield-based Farmers among the largest community banks in Ohio with more than $4.1 billion in bank assets and more than $3 billion in wealth assets.

The merger with Cortland, holding company for Cortland Savings and Banking Company, was the sixth for Farmers in as many years.

The move expanded Farmers’ reach into suburban Cleveland, where Cortland Bank has branches, and into the Akron area, where Cortland Bank has a financial service center in Fairlawn.

It gives the Farmers National Bank 48 locations in Mahoning, Trumbull, Columbiana, Stark, Summit, Portage, Wayne, Medina, Geauga and Cuyahoga counties in Ohio and Beaver County in Pennsylvania.

“We do M&A (mergers and acquisitions) … for the right reasons. It’s so much about the community. Shareholders are just one facet of our stakeholder base and the ability for us to continue to pay dividends and continue to earn and continue to give people gainful employment, really good jobs across the Mahoning Valley is so important to us,” said Kevin J. Helmick, Farmers’ president / CEO. “I can assure you anything we do in the future will have those critical values.”

Customers of Cortland will be brought over to the Farmers platform in February, which is around the same time Farmers will start to rebrand Cortland Bank’s branches and other offices under the Farmers name.

10. Same dog, new owners

It was March when it was announced the iconic Hot Dog Shoppe restaurants in Warren, Girard and East Liverpool in Columbiana County had been sold.

Hot Dog Shoppe Holdings LLC, founded by restaurant industry veteran Greg Vojnovic, bought the brand and buildings from the Trevelline and Doverspike families. The brand was founded in 1946 by Paul Trevelline.

It didn’t take long for Vojnovic to grow.

The company has purchased the former the former Denny’s restaurant, 154 Boardman-Canfield Road, for a planned fourth location. The move also is seen as a springboard to further expanding the Hot Dog Shoppe brand given, its Vojnovic said, there’s really no significant hot dog concept around.

“We want to honor everything that is here. We think we can share it with other people and will start with Boardman and when we’re able to do that, our goal is to franchise this,” said Vojnovic, president / CEO of Hot Dog Shoppe Holdings LLC.

Vojnovic, however, is careful to honor the history and traditions that have caused the business the last 75 years.

“We’re trying to do our thing for the people in the Youngstown area,” Vojnovic said. “It’s kind of a unique thing to this area and it’s special, and we’re just going to try to be very careful with it. We’re stewards of this thing.”

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