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Development Arm of Port Authority Defines Mission

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Among the off-the-wall questions asked the Western Reserve Port Authority during its 25-year history is the location of its shipyard and where to park the boats, Anthony Trevena relates with some amusement.

The port authority has neither a shipyard not boats. Never did.

Until recently it had to deal with the more serious issue of possessing an array of economic development tools – tax increment financing and bonding powers, for example – but lacking the capacity to use them effectively.

“You can have a lot of great tools in your toolbox but if you don’t have someone to swing the hammer it’s not going to happen,” says Trevena, hired last year as director of WRPA’s economic development division, which was rebranded this year as the Northeast Ohio Development and Finance Authority.

The rebranding – the new identity for the economic development arm was approved in February – is essential so people understand what the authority does, Trevena says.

Although the economic development division was established in 2009, the port authority itself has had various economic development powers since it was established, says its executive director, John Moliterno. The agency has helped projects with more than $250 million in financing, he notes.

In 1991, Mahoning and Trumbull counties formed the Western Reserve Port Authority to assume the operations of what is now the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport from the city of Youngstown. At the time, Moliterno was president of the Youngstown Area Chamber of Commerce. He later became a member and chairman of the port authority board of directors.

The Ohio Revised Code port authority ordinance was chosen because it would provide “the most broad-based powers” to the new entity, he says.

Shortly after his election to Congress in 2002, U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-13 Ohio, recalls he spent a lot of time in Akron, part of the newly redrawn congressional district. There he became familiar with the Development Finance Authority of Summit County and its work.

“I learned all the different tools and opportunities that port authorities could provide in economic development,” Ryan says. He later brought the Summit authority’s leadership to meet with WRPA’s and lobbied officials here to provide seed money for WRPA’s development arm.

The congressman “viewed this as an opportunity to broaden the reach of economic development – because the port authority encompasses both counties – and to bring down the cost of financing projects,” says Sarah Lown, WRPA public finance manager.

Port authorities have what Trevena describes as the “bread-and-butter ability” to issue bonds to provide low-interest financing for projects, such as it did with Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics’ recently launched expansion of its campus at the airport.

Among the other tools in the port authority toolbox is the ability to provide tax-increment financing for a project. Tax-increment financing allows a portion of the increased real estate tax revenues that a project would generate to be directed toward infrastructure improvements that would benefit that project. The bonds issued are repaid from the tax revenues collected.

“It allows you to use those tax revenues proactively instead of waiting over those 10 years that it comes in,” Trevena says. “A successful TIF project in the Valley can result in more economic development by bringing in the infrastructure needed for other companies to join that particular region. … It’s a super-powerful tool that we hope to deploy more frequently.”

TIF financing was one of the tools that the port authority provided the Hollywood Gaming at Mahoning Valley Race Course in Austintown. It also provided capital lease financing, which offers tax advantages to a developer.

The Southern Park Mall in Boardman received help with an energy efficiency project that uses Property Assessed Clean Energy bonds through the port authority. “It’s just creative financing, if you will, to help make the project work,” Trevena says.

Among other projects the authority has helped are the Inn at Poland Way and two student housing projects that serve the Youngstown State University campus, University Edge and YSU Enclave.

And the port authority has worked to secure the resources to assess and remediate brownfields in the area. In 2013, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency awarded a $600,000 Brownfield Assessment Grant to the agency on behalf of the Trumbull Brownfield Coalition.

The development and finance authority has helped secure funds to cleanse the former Delphi Packard properties in Warren, where Auto ParkIt LLC has proposed setting up its headquarters and manufacturing operation.

“Those dollars are well spent because if it’s not Auto ParkIt – and we hope it is and we hope it’s successful – it’s ready for whoever wants to come in, without having to go through this process again,” Moliterno says.

Spearheading the development and finance authority’s brownfield efforts is Lown, whom Trevena calls the “queen of cleanup” in the community. Trevena praises Lown, who joined the port authority staff in 2011, as “one of the smartest people I know. …

“You drive around anywhere in the Mahoning Valley with Sarah Lown and you see properties that have been cleaned up, chances are she had her finger in it somewhere,” he continues. “Our board believes that our work in the area of cleaning up blighted properties and being involved in those areas, absolutely imperative to further economic development.”

Moliterno, hired as executive director of the port authority last year, was also involved in the Youngstown chamber’s creation of the Regional Growth Alliance in the mid-1980s. That experience reminded him of the value of having a talented team.

“You need to surround yourself with people who are knowledgeable, who have experience and are creative, that are not afraid to try new and different things [or] to look at different ways of approaching an old problem,” he says.

Moliterno notes that he, Trevena and Lown come from very different backgrounds but “that’s what makes it work.”

Trevena, whose experience includes serving as a congressional chief of staff, brings a “history of working in government” and “the ability to understand the system,” he says.

“Those things are tremendously important but unless you’ve lived in that world, you’re only guessing as you try to work your way through that system,” Moliterno says.

“John knows pretty much anybody who’s anybody anywhere in the Mahoning Valley,” Trevena says. His skills in building relationships are “an important part of our abilities as a team.”

“You have to complement each other. No one’s shy about asking questions of each other,” Moliterno says. “The other side is we’re not worried about who gets credit. It’s not about that. It’s about trying to get things done.”

As important as it is for developers to understand the powers of the port authority and the role of its development division, making clear what the agency doesn’t do is equally important. The products the division offers aren’t “inherently competitive” with banks, and it works with commercial bankers on projects, Trevena says. Nor is it the “go-to team” for business attraction and retention.

“We’re part of the larger team that works together to bring jobs, and that includes everybody from the planning commissions to the Mahoning Valley Economic Development Corp. and the chamber to a variety of entities,” Moliterno says. “We all stay in our own lane but we complement each other. We help each other and we try to make something happen.”

In the years since its creation, Ryan says, the development division has become “a centerpiece” of local economic development. “We are saving businesses a lot of money so they can reinvest that money and make deals happen and hire people,” he says. In addition, the port authority can help organizations such as the YMCA of Youngstown with its renovation, in the Y’s case through New Market Tax Credits.

Commissioners in Trumbull and Mahoning counties, which fund the port authority through bed taxes, agree that the economic development division has made progress.

“They have a good team,” says Trumbull County Commissioner Dan Polivka. “They’re starting to really make a mark on the county.”

Moliterno, Trevena and Lown “work very well together,” adds Mahoning County Commissioner Carol Rimedio-Righetti. “We’re happy with the results that we’re seeing.”

Still, the development and finance authority isn’t “where we want to be just yet,” Moliterno says. “We’ve come along way in a very short period of time, and we’re getting more knowledgeable about the tools that are in front of us. The beneficiary of all that is going to be the Mahoning Valley.”

Pictured: Anthony Trevena, Sarah Lown and John Moliterno stand before a picture of a hopper, once used to melt steel, at the former RG Steel brownfield site in Warren. The picture hangs in the Western Reserve Port Authority offices downtown.

(Published September 26, 2016 by George Nelson, The Business Journal)