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Marketplace’s Amy Scott is making her way west, toward a special broadcast we’re going to do this Friday from St. Louis.
Youngstown, Ohio is about an hour southeast of Cleveland. It was stop three on Amy’s trip this weekend. Youngstown’s known for having one of the highest foreclosure rates in the country.
But while she was there she found some glimmers of hope.
On Mineral Springs Avenue on Youngstown’s North Side, all but two houses on the block sit empty.
Some are boarded up. Windows are broken.
Around the corner Billy Hasan runs Gina’s Drive-Thru convenience store. It’s one of few open businesses in the neighborhood. Hasan says it’s been like this since he came to town four years ago and it’s just getting worse.
Billy Hasan: To be honest with you we’re having like a rough time. We’re barely making it. But you know we’re praying for it to be picking up or something like that. Because, you know, we can’t survive like this.
Youngstown was once this country’s third-largest steel producer. But in the late 1970s the Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company shut down. Other plants soon followed.
By the mid-1980s the unemployment rate was in the double digits. Meanwhile, Leon Turek was trying to start his real estate business.
Leon Turek: We opened our company three weeks prior to the Sheet and Tube closing its doors.
Turek still remembers sitting in a barber’s chair when someone said, “Thank God I’m not in real estate.”
Turek: And I wanted to tell him, “But I am, and I’m young, and I have a family. But we survived it.
Today Turek sits squarely in the middle of another Youngstown crisis. According to HUD, almost 15 percent of the houses here have been in foreclosure in the last year-and-a-half. Home prices and sales have tumbled.
I found Turek at an open house yesterday, watching football while he waited for prospective buyers.
Turek: I pay the bills and make a living. I’m not a millionaire. But I’m home bread, like the Schwebel bread. I’m home born and bread, so I guess I’m going to stay here the rest of my life.
One bright spot for the area’s economy is this General Motors plant in Lordstown, about 10 miles from Youngstown. This is where GM makes the Chevy Cobalt and Pontiac G5, smaller cars that are in higher demand as drivers shift away from trucks and SUVs.
In 2010 GM will start producing a new compact car here–the Chevrolet Cruze. The company’s spending millions of dollars on the plant, it’s added a midnight shift, and locals hope the investment will bring hundreds of workers and their families here to buy homes and spend money in the local economy.
Every Sunday night classic car and bike owners gather at the Quaker Steak and Lube restaurant in nearby Austintown. Ken Jakubec is a manager.
Ken Janubec: It’s really a big boost. I forget how many hundreds of millions they said that would bring into the economy just with the third shift being added. ‘Cause they do get some nice paychecks out there.
Jakubec remembers the last time automakers invested big in small cars. He worked at the GM Lordstown plant in the 70s when it first started cranking out the Chevy Vega. It was GM’s answer to Japan’s more fuel-efficient cars. Jackubec thinks this time the small car boom will last.
Janubec: I don’t think that gas prices are ever gonna go down. Every time they go up they never go down to where they were when they started going up. So I think the days of your big Avalanches and SUVs are…they’ve seen their days.
Youngstown locals are excited about the Cruze.
Realtor Leon Turek is even thinking about getting one.
Turek:Forty-two miles a gallon, I mean, and it looks sharp. The bad news is, again, we’re putting our apples in one basket. And should they have trouble and close, we’re back to the steel mentality again.
City officials see the danger too. They’re trying to build a more diverse economy. There’s a new high-tech business incubator downtown. A community college opens next year to train locals for the jobs of the future.
In Youngstown, I’m Amy Scott for Marketplace.
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