Driving around Youngstown, Ohio, can feel eerily like exploring a decimated city in a war-torn nation. Brick buildings downtown look like hollow, bombed-out shells. Houses abandoned by blue-collar workers sit empty. Bruce Springsteen’s ode to the Rust Belt city sang of the steel mills that “built the tanks and bombs that won this country’s wars.” But those factories were shuttered long ago, their idle smokestacks looming over a crime-ridden town that for decades was better known as "Bomb City" and "Murdertown, USA."
But there’s life emerging beneath these hardened scars. In the shadow of the iconic 1919 Home Savings and Loan Company building downtown, a managed cluster of high-tech startups is injecting new energy into the city. It’s the Youngstown Business Incubator (YBI), a nonprofit corporation, and it’s not only redefining the industry of this hardscrabble valley on the eastern edge of Ohio; it’s changing the notion of what cities and states can do to spur innovation and investment. In the past decade, CEO Jim Cossler, who also refers to himself as “chief evangelist,” has revamped the model of an incubator from a klatch of unrelated businesses to a targeted group of niche entrepreneurs—in this case, business-to-business software firms. Unlike traditional business incubators, Cossler doesn’t “graduate” successful companies and send them packing. Instead, he keeps the portfolio companies on a single, mixed-use campus that promotes open source collaboration. He provides them with cheap or free rent, utilities and Wi-Fi to help them convert IT ideas into dollars and, in turn, jobs.
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Author: Russell Nichols