YOUNGSTOWN, OHIO — Even the most poetic of storytellers will candidly admit a community cannot survive on tales of used-to-bes and remember-whens.
Here in the Mahoning Valley, reminiscence of days gone by has been, for the better part of 40 years, the only fuel that has kept people hanging on for something better.
And as much as Rep. Tim Ryan loves to wax nostalgia about his life growing up here in the shadows of a once-great industrial boomtown, he knows nostalgia does not attract job creators. Ideas, a populace renowned for its work ethic and affordable acreage for investment will.
All the Democratic congressman from Niles, Ohio, needed to do was connect the haves with the have-nots to make that happen.
"I think it's my job, and other civic leaders', to try to break down these barriers and try to get people together, and that's what this is all about," Ryan said.
And that's just what he did last Wednesday. He gathered venture capitalists, most of them from Silicon Valley, in Youngstown for meetings with a variety of civic, education and business leaders, and then loaded them all on a bus for stops in Akron, Ohio, Detroit and Flint, Michigan, on the way to the final stop in South Bend, Indiana, on Friday.
"There is an incredible amount of wealth and investments all largely going to just three states: California, New York, and Massachusetts," Ryan said as he was just about to board the bus packed with West Coast investors, some of whom had never been to the Rust Belt.
To understand the divide between capital investments from venture funds in this country, Ohio gets less than 2 percent of that funding, and the entire Midwest less than 4 percent, said Ryan, "while Massachusetts, New York, and California get 80 percent."
"A lot of these investors had no idea what kinds of opportunities for growth lie here," he said. "They also had no idea about the technological sophistication and small business growth that has come just from Youngstown State University." Ryan was talking about YSU's College of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.
In a fairly new part of the university Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, you will find a series of impressive 3-D printing robots working on things as important and innovative as filling orders and producing parts for the Department of Defense.
"So many people go to Silicon Valley with their ideas, but there is a recognition now that they could chop 30 to 35 percent off of their costs just by coming to an area like ours," Ryan explained. "You know, with what they would have to pay computer scientists or engineers is probably half here, and then, think about the cost of locating a business here, it's like eight bucks a foot in Youngstown, and it is $75 in San Francisco. I mean, just that alone is going to save you a significant amount of money, especially for some of these jobs that you can do anywhere."
Ryan's jubilance on the road is infectious — where others see a broken region, he sees potential. His optimism isn't unfounded; this has happened before, just 59 miles east of here. The city of Pittsburgh was able to recreate its economy on the backs of civic, business and academic leaders; they invested in the arts, the trails and the higher institutions that led to the city's high-tech, healthcare-centered renaissance.
These days, it is not that often you get anyone on the opposite side of the aisle to agree on anything, yet that is exactly what Ryan did with his field trip into his beloved Rust Belt.
"Someone's gotta be a leader, someone's gotta be a salesman for the state," said Bruce Haynes, a Washington, D.C.-based Republican strategist. "Usually, it's expected that that's going to be the governor. But I would tip my cap to Mr. Ryan for stepping up and helping out."
What Haynes loved about the three-day bus trip was the lack of partisan politics. "Job creation is the ultimate nonpartisan policy of success," he said.
Democratic strategist Dane Strother agrees. He said: "I think it is brilliant Congressman Ryan's doing this. Often in congressional races, candidates make the claim they are going to create jobs, and the truth is it is very difficult for a member of Congress to create jobs. Well, this is an example of a congressman not only keeping his word, but using his access to corporate CEOs to benefit his constituents."
There are great big swaths of this country, not just in the Rust Belt where steel was once king but also in the old textiles mills in the South and the paper factories in New England, all thriving industries hollowed out by automation, digitization, foreign competition and consolidation.
Ryan says all that is left of them are visuals that remind people of their own decline and stories of what used to be. "We need move forward and take chances and, above all, work together," he said. "One bus trip at a time."