Is Eastern Ohio, including portions of Portage County, turning into a mini Texas?
I've been hearing predictions like that for the past two years, ever since Ohio's fracking boom started up and lately the headlines indicate it's so.
In the past week, for instance, British Petroleum announced it is relocating its Ohio headquarters to North Jackson, a small unincorporated community on I-76 near Youngstown and approximately eight miles east of the Portage-Mahoning County line. To the south, in Cambridge, fracking has caused local motels to rent out their rooms for months in advance and some farmers have made so much money leasing land that their debts are paid off. My relatives, who work in Cambridge, tell me local auto and tractor dealerships are flush. Ohio University a few days ago announced it will open a branch in Cambridge.
Friday's edition of the Warren Tribune Chronicle carried a headline about a $1.5 billion venture in Warren between Dominion Resources, Inc. of Virginia and Caiman Energy II LLC of Dallas to provide services to natural gas producers.
Over the past three years, steel companies, most having abandoned Youngstown more than 30 years ago, have been investing in steel pipe manufacturing plants there to meet the needs of natural gas producers. The most dramatic of these investments has come from Vallouric, the French company, that has constructed from scratch an entirely new steel pipe manufacturing plant in Youngstown and continues to add to it. Pitied for three decades, Youngstown may end up having the last laugh.
The Economist, the respected British weekly news magazine, has carried predictions that the United States, long dependent on the Middle East for oil, will reach energy independence and become a net exporter of natural gas over the next 15 years. Its more recent articles have mentioned Eastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania.
Last summer, business took me to Lisbon, the county seat of Ohio's Columbiana County. I last visited Lisbon 20 years ago. It was depressed and desperate, one of those Eastern Ohio towns whose better days occurred when coal was king and America's steel industry was booming. Lisbon last summer was bustling. The publisher of its newspaper told me the Columbiana County recorder's office is busy with title experts doing ownership searches concerning land parcels where natural gas and oil may be in abundance.
Closer to home, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources maps indicate that natural gas and oil, locked up mainly in Utica Shale, may be plentiful in eastern and southern Portage County. We've already run stories about drilling in Suffield, Nelson and Windham townships. Last Sunday, we published a front-page story about Precision Geophysical Inc. of Millersburg conducting seismic testing with a cable line that ran along S.R. 43 from Twin Lakes to Suffield Township.
Kent is already benefiting indirectly from the fracking boom because of MAC Trailer, the Alliance company, which in 2011 opened a trailer manufacturing operation in the old Fontaine quarters on Fairchild Avenue and was projected to employ more than 200 people by the end of this year. Many of its trailers are built to haul waste from drilling sites for safe disposal elsewhere.
Both Kent State and Hiram College have strong programs in the natural sciences, including geology, and may be affected by fracking. Ravenna, as the county seat, is likely to receive a significant economic boost from fracking.
A vision for a revitalized Ravenna
During Tuesday evening's vision session for downtown Ravenna sponsored by JobsOhio and city government, I learned those of us who attended have the commonly shared goal of wanting a vibrant downtown, value Ravenna's rich architectural heritage and want a master plan that speaks to a vision for the city's future.
We learned those commonalities because JobsOhio split us up into three groups and then asked each to respond to questions about the city. They then asked us to list our answers. In most cases, each group's answers were the same as or close to those of the other two.
Todd Peetz, director of Portage County Regional Planning, who attended, said the exercise was a good start at coming up with a vision for the Ravenna community. Once a vision emerges, the next step, he said, is a comprehensive plan to show how the goals stated in the vision can be achieved.
Peetz has a master's degree in planning from Ohio State and worked in Florida's Brevard County for 20 years before returning to Ohio. He said Brevard County was going through a vision exercise, eliciting community input, when he arrived. A master plan speaking to community goals was eventually set up with benchmarks.
People in Brevard County were skeptical at first, he said, but as some of the goals began to be realized, they became enthusiastic, so much so "they were not content with the goals, but start asking, how they could make things even better."
Peetz is a graduate of Leadership Portage County's Class of 2010 and is working with several of its members on an LPC class project of coming up with goals for all of Portage County. The goals, if summarized by March, will be incorporated in a goal setting program for 12 counties being undertaken by the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium.
New site a drawing card for Ametek
Tim Michalk, vice president of human resources for Ametek Precision Motion Control, said recruiting qualified employees has become considerably easier due to the move from Lake Street to downtown Kent into the new Fairmount complex.
"People see our beautiful new quarters and all the activity in downtown Kent and they're impressed," he said. Ametek has its conference room on the corner of the Fairmount building facing South Water and Erie Street. Its view shows off the downtown at its best. Standing in it gives one the feel of being in a bustling city. In the background one can see the beautiful Cuyahoga River Valley.
"When people interviewing for employment are in the conference room, they can't help but be impressed," he said.
Michalk said he came with Ametek Precision Motion Control less than a year ago and the prospect of moving into the Fairmount Block in downtown Kent made the position he now holds seem even more attractive. His fellow employees, he said, now tease him good naturedly saying he should be exiled to the old Lake Street building to endure a kind of secular purgatory before being able to enjoy his employer's new downtown offices.
Matt French, vice president and general manager of Ametek's Precision Motion Control Division, understood the downtown vision and worked hard to persuade the home office in greater Philadelphia to have his division participate in it rather than leave Kent. "He deserves a lot of credit for that," Michalk said.
Soup's on in downtown Kent
Randy Durant, owner of Funky Ladles, the soup restaurant on Erie Street in the Burbick complex in Acorn Alley II, told me this week he changed the name of his restaurant from Zoupwerks, because that title was copyright protected by Zoup, another restaurant business that has locations throughout Northeast Ohio.
"My lawyer told me the good news is that the other company knows I exist," Randy said. Although he has had soup restaurants in Champion near Warren and before that in Ithaca, the home of Cornell University, his downtown Kent location is his only one now and Randy says it's the best of the three.
"My Ithaca restaurant lacked parking," he said. His Champion location was near a couple of hamburger fast food restaurants and, he said, "my customers there obviously preferred the burgers."
Randy said he makes his soups fresh every day. He carries several varieties and they are dished up with delicious European style bread.
I got a laugh out of him when I told him that misreading his sign, I thought it said, "Funky Ladies."