Gas Valley?

You can’t swing a cat in this town without hitting some reference to a time when “Steel Valley” was spoken with pride rather than nostalgia.

Youngstownians of the mid-20th century had good reason to praise the steel industry. In 1977, manufacturing accounted for about 39 percent — more than 81,000 jobs — of all employment in the Youngstown-Warren area, according to data collected by the Ohio Bureau of Employment Services.

When those jobs left, the industries that serviced them soon followed, and the rest is history. If we’re not careful, that history could repeat itself with natural gas.

“We put all our eggs in one basket,” said Bert Cene, executive director of the Mahoning and Columbiana County Training Association. “Hopefully, we’ve learned from the past.”

If we’re not careful, that history could repeat itself with natural gas. Earlier this year, the Ohio Shale Coalition released a study projecting that more than 65,000 jobs and $3.3 billion in labor income will be added in Ohio by 2014 as a direct result of shale gas in Ohio.

That’s not chump change.

The gas industry has the potential to restore Youngstown’s economy along with much of Ohio. And everyone’s clawing to get his or her piece of the pie.

Educational institutions like Youngstown State University, Eastern Gateway Community College and Zane State College have jumped on the bandwagon by offering curriculum to prepare students for the industry.

But the coalition’s study may be counting chickens that haven’t hatched. Another study sponsored by the coalition estimates 15 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas in Ohio’s portion of the Utica shale play.

These projections are based on industry estimates. But God’s honest truth is no one really knows how much gas sits beneath our feet or how long it will take to bring it all up to the surface.

One fact is written in stone, however: Natural gas is a limited resource. Once it’s gone, it’s gone for good.

We’d do well to invest in infrastructure like pipelines, rail and commercial trucking that can carry us through the shale boom and the potential bust.

The main reasons steel and manufacturing thrived in Youngstown were, first, the area is rich in natural resources used in the processes, and, second, location, location, location!

Youngstown is halfway between Pittsburgh and Cleveland, and New York and Chicago. Anyone traveling between Point A and Point B would find himself or herself in Youngstown along the way.

Both are still true. But if we don’t look before we leap, we could earn the name “Gas Valley” and become just another dusty old cliche.