America’s Past and Future Do Battle in an Unlikely Tech Incubator

There are about 20 startups that call this tech incubator home. On any given afternoon, you can walk through these lime-green halls, past a life-sized Darth Vader cutout and a sign that reads, “Stop Tweeting Boring Shit” to see them at work. In one office, watch 3D printers whir, making knobs and propellers to build even more 3D printers. In another, strap on a PlayStation virtual reality headset and let it transport you to a haunted coal mine, designed by an upstart VR company.

If you’re thirsty, pop on over to the pour-over coffee shop down the street, or grab a craft beer around the corner at Rust Belt Brewing. You might as well. You are in the Rust Belt after all.

What, you were expecting Palo Alto?

The Youngstown Business Incubator, located in Youngstown, Ohio, is a rare spot of technocentric optimism in the middle of a city whose reputation as a drab and dire former steel town is so well-known it’s a cliché.

Heck, Bruce Springsteen once wrote a song about it, so you know it’s got hard times, blue collar cred. From the early 1900s and for the next three quarters of the century, steel sustained life here, until new pressures of trade and globalization ignited a blaze of mill closures that decimated the workforce and Youngstown’s economic prospects for decades to come.

Jim Cossler, who was born and raised here and has run the incubator since 2001, isn’t interested in retreading that history. “We get tired of reporters coming in and using us as the example of the dying Rust Belt city,” Cossler tells me, a reporter who has come to Youngstown to use it as an example of a dying Rust Belt city.

Intentionally embracing new technologies, Cossler says, has helped bring downtown Youngstown—once a crime-addled strip of abandoned buildings—back from the brink.

The Future Business

If this message sounds familiar, it may be because this approach to urban revitalization hews pretty closely to the one Hillary Clinton has been proposing on the campaign trail this year.

“I want America to get back in the future business,” she said during a speech at another tech incubator in Denver, Colorado this year. “I want more people in more places to feel that their future lies in STEM, in technology, in helping to create the jobs that we’re going to attract.” The former Secretary of State’s innovation plan includes support for incubators in underserved areas and student loan forgiveness programs for entrepreneurs and startup employees. Clinton wants computer science taught in every school and tech skills training courses available to anyone who wants to learn.

Which is all well and good for the college kids and recent graduates who occupy YBI’s halls. But what about the former steel workers and laborers who once powered this town and now view this inexorable march into the future as a threat to their usefulness in this economy? What about them?

It’s little wonder that Youngstown, which has been a Democratic stronghold for decades thanks to its deep roots in union labor, is starting to look a lot like Trump country.

Even Cossler, who has become the face of this future in Youngstown, says that at the incubator at least, “There’s nothing we can do for them.”

And so it’s little wonder that Youngstown, which has been a Democratic stronghold for decades thanks to its deep roots in union labor, is starting to look a lot like Trump country. Back in 2012, President Obama won this county—Mahoning—63 percent to 35 percent. But Trump has a different pitch for the people here than his free-trade Republican predecessors ever did. By cracking down on trade and globalization, the promise goes, the Trump administration will bring back factory jobs. In that version of the future, Trump has said, “It will be American steel that will fortify America’s crumbling bridges. It will be American steel that sends our skyscrapers soaring into the sky.”

Nevermind that Trump has used Chinese steel in his own skyscrapers. During the primaries, at least, this pitch worked: Mahoning County was one of the few places throughout all of Ohio where Trump defeated the state’s own governor, John Kasich. Now, Ohio is poised to be one of the tightest swing states in the country, with Clinton and Trump virtually neck and neck in public polls. Though the two candidates are proposing entirely different plans for Mahoning County, officials at both campaigns say they like their chances there.

Youngstown Business Incubator sits both geographically and symbolically at the intersection of this tension—the tension between those who fear how fast the American economy is changing and those who fear what will happen if American workers fail to change along with it.

You Can Do It Here

Cossler will soon be 62-years-old, so he remembers clearly when the steel mills started to close in the late ‘70s. Growing up, there were two options: either go to college and secure your “ticket out of Youngstown” or go right from high school to the mills. Cossler chose college at Youngstown State University, and he was lucky he did. In 1977, not long after he graduated, Youngstown Tube and Steel, one of the area’s biggest employers, closed, laying off 5,000 steelworkers in a single day—a day known now as Black Monday.

By the time Brittany Housel, the incubator’s director of program management, was getting ready to leave high school in the late 2000s, she says, the options available to Youngstown’s youth had been reduced to one. “For so long we were taught, ‘Go to school, go to college, graduate, and leave Youngstown, because there’s nothing here for you,’” she says.

But Housel, who graduated from Youngstown State a few years ago, says the incubator changed her mind about that. While she was still in school, she answered a Craigslist ad for an internship at one of YBI’s startups, and she’s been there ever since. “It’s saying you can do it here,” she says of the work going on at YBI. “It may not make an impact in our parents’ or grandparents’ lives, but it’s changing our future.”

The incubator itself has been around since the ’90s. But it wasn’t until 2001 that Cossler refocused its mission on tech. At the time, he says, people laughed at the idea of Youngstown as a tech hub. “You can’t do that here,” they’d say. But by 2007, YBI was doing it. That year, Turning Technologies, one of the incubator’s first startups, became the fastest-growing, privately owned software company in the country, according to Inc. magazine’s annual ranking.

He mines LinkedIn for Youngstown’s ‘lost nation,’ Cossler’s term for people who have been part of Youngstown’s decades-long exodus.

Cossler wooed startups like Revere Data away from Silicon Valley with his pitch of $8-per-square-foot office space and a deep pool of engineering talent from nearby Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh and Case Western University in Cleveland. He mines LinkedIn for Youngstown’s “lost nation,” Cossler’s term for people who have been part of Youngstown’s decades-long exodus, and has found them in C-suite positions at tech giants like Cisco, HP, Salesforce, and Twitter. He uses these connections to hook YBI entrepreneurs up with potential clients and exit opportunities.

This work has earned Cossler friends in high places, like, for instance, The White House. In 2013, President Obama name-checked YBI in his State of the Union address. The year before, his administration picked Youngstown as the site of the first of 15 so-called National Additive Manufacturing Institutes, aimed at reviving manufacturing through 3D printing. Today, signs hang on street posts just outside YBI’s doors, proclaiming Youngstown a top 10 city to start a business.

“If you’re in technology in Youngstown, you want to be in YBI,” says Don Hileman, 41, a former photographer who now runs Enyx Studios, a VR gaming company.

Hileman’s father lost his job in the steel mills, and while he remembers it as a scary and painful time in his family’s life, he says he knows there’s no going backward. “I don’t see the steel mills coming back,” he says, as one of his employees toils away on a 3D model of a game character. “Technology, that’s the future.”