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My Visit to the Youngstown Business Incubator

Downtown Youngstown, intersection of Federal Plaza and Wick Avenue.

Downtown Youngstown, intersection of Federal Plaza and Wick Avenues.

With Auld Lang Syne humming in my head, I’m posting back onto the web some of the pieces I’ve written for the Yahoo Contributor Network before they pulled the plug on it this past May.  Okay, these can be considered somewhat dated but, from the response I received from my Pittsburgh piece, why didn’t I set up a blog earlier??  Anyway, Youngstown has been doing some pretty amazing things and the Youngstown Business Incubator is just one of them.  Here’s something I had originally published in the spring of 2012; or sometime before that Malibu I drove there finally broke down.

“It seemed rather fitting that I drove through veils of fog one morning last month on the Ohio Turnpike to get to Youngstown. I was finally going to see something I’ve heard about for two years, the Youngstown Business Incubator (YBI).
Youngstown looks like almost any city in Ohio, its best years way behind it, a downtown core surrounded by parking lots where buildings once were, and edifices that seemed grander than the place warranted, having been built decades earlier when it was a much larger city. All the maladies plaguing Rustbelt cities afflict this town in spades. However, a lot of people there, including the mayor, believe in their town so much to try to save it. In fact, the YBI is just the most successful of various measures to prevent Youngstown from becoming the ghost town many had predicted.   Though the fog had lifted by the time I got there, it took me a while to get my bearings once I got off the highway. From where the map indicated, I wound up on the opposite side of where I had to be. However, after fifteen minutes driving around downtown, I found the incubator and parked right across the street.

The Youngstown Business Incubator July 2013.

The Youngstown Business Incubator July 2013.

The building looks quite average on the outside, especially next to the rather state of the art Taft Technology Center, but looks are deceiving. Inside, I discovered a state-of-the-art facility with a decor that NPR Science Friday’s Ira Flatow would approve, right down to a cardboard Dr. Spock in the corner of the entrance area. When I was first there, two guys in their twenties were smoking outside, and two others were at the front desk where the Director of Operations, Keith Sikora, was talking. I did manage to see the CEO, Jim Cossler, for a few seconds speaking on a cell phone as he walked past us but Keith explained that Mr. Cossler was in meetings until two. So, I asked him if they had any brochures to read and where was a good place to eat? He gave me their latest supplement, the names of a few restaurants, and said to come back after lunch.

One of the work spaces in the YBI, July 2013

One of the work spaces in the Youngstown Business Incubator, July 2013

Walking down Federal Plaza West to the center of downtown, my first impressions of the physical environment remained intact. At the corner of Wick and Federal Plaza, one of the old bank buildings now had listed prominently office space available (Class A), and while numerous cars drove though, the number of pedestrians you can count on your hand. Many of the storefronts seemed occupied but it definitely wasn’t the scene you’d see in Seattle or Toronto, or Pittsburgh for that matter. However, I did stop at a local eatery and noticed that there were young people around. Overhearing snippets of conversation, I also noticed that Pittsburgh came up while my home town of Cleveland didn’t. It seemed that they are staking their future on the city across the border than the rest of NE Ohio. Glancing through the insert while waiting for my hamburger, I did see that through the typical media gloss you get with promotional material, there were a lot of interesting things being presented, such as an article on former residents coming back as entrepreneurs thanks to the YBI. Mr. Cossler and his team seem to be sincere in their support of Youngstown
When I came back from lunch, Keith showed me around the first floor and gave me a pretty good run down of the incubator. The YBI is concentrating its energy on the IT industry and it has paid substantial dividends. As it turns out, the incubator has been so successful they have taken over three more buildings on the block, including the Taft Technology Center next door. They were also in the process of taking over a fourth building right behind it that already has a direct connection to their workspace. The room that opened off the main lobby is where things get started. There are work stations and even small offices (named after local foundations that provide funding) where someone with an idea can get together with others and begin the build a company. About 380 people have jobs thanks to this enterprise; which in turn has attracted companies as far as India to relocate.

Me at the Youngstown Business Incubator July 13, 2013

The author inside one of the workplaces on his second visit.

What makes the YBI unique among other incubators is that, while others pull the plug after a few years development, the start-ups remain part of their support network. This long-term support can be to a company’s advantage in such a competitive economic climate. Mr. Sikora told me that their goal is to create a cluster of similar IT companies, or an agglomeration, that feed off each other and create a synergy; which Silicon Valley has shown to be quite effective.
For a city such as Youngstown, anything that can fill in some of the big economic hole left by the collapse of the steel industry is critical for its survival. It has a long way to go, but things seem to be stabilizing finally and who knows what the rest of the decade will lead? The Incubator’s presence has only been positive, and a model other cities should study.  While I was almost as amazed that my 2003 Malibu managed to make the long drive back and forth as with the Youngstown Business Incubator, it still gets the wheels in my head turning about how this local organization can do so well.”

I managed to make another trip over there in 2013; this time with Jim Cossler himself giving a tour of the place.  He is definitely proud of what he and his group have accomplished.  The Incubator is in the process of finishing up its’ renovation of a fifth building that they have acquired and plenty of investment and grants continue to roll in.  Recently, he sent out an email touting the fact that the YBI has been named the number one university affiliated incubator in the world.  He promises that 2015 will be even more exciting “Much, much, more” he wrote, and I plan to once again head over there and check it out.

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