(WKBN) – Of all the economic development issues facing the Mahoning and Shenango valleys, local economic experts agree that population loss is among the most serious, which is why a plan is now in place to repopulate the area.

The Census Bureau divides the United States into Metropolitan Statistical Areas or MSAs. Our statistical area is known as the Youngstown-Warren-Boardman MSA. It includes Mahoning and Trumbull counties in Ohio and Mercer County in Pennsylvania. In 2010, 565,000 people lived in our MSA. Last year, it was 536,000 — a loss of 29,000 people — a 5% drop, or about 7 people every day over 12 years.

Only the Charleston, West Virginia MSA had a larger percentage decrease in population.

In an effort to reverse the trend, the Youngstown Warren Regional Chamber has a plan. It’s called, simply, “Repopulation.”

“All of us who are involved in this project find ourselves saying the word ‘repopulation’ quite a bit, and have never said it before in our lives up until about a year ago,” said Mike McGiffin, Foundation president with the Youngstown Warren Regional Chamber.

“Based on the feedback we got from the business community, this was our number one need, just that need for human capital,” said consultant Emil Liszniansky.

Liszniansky is with the Cleveland consulting group Envision and was hired by the Eastgate Regional Council of Governments to help with the repopulation plan. McGiffin has been instrumental in developing the plan, too.

“We’re trying to grow our community’s population,” McGiffin said.

The plan has three steps. First, retain the youth. Convince young people who grew up here to stay here.

“There’s some very smart stuff going on here where digital advertising is able to target people who are looking for jobs and illustrate to them the salaries might match, but the cost of living is lower. So, you’re actually wealthier if you live in this area,” McGiffin said.

The second step is what the repopulation plan refers to as the boomerang effect. Convincing people who grew up here and moved away to move back.

“They’re more likely to come back then say somebody from Denver or Texas should come here because there’s a lower cost of living. That’s a big leap,” Liszniansky said.

One enticement, and it’s being done in other cities, would be to pay people to return.

“Tulsa, Oklahoma has a program where they will relocate you for $10,000 dollars. A $10,000 bonus paid out over two years if you’re a remote worker,” McGiffin said.

“So that return aspect of this strategy, the boomerangs if you will, is huge is what we’re doing,” Liszniansky said.

The third step of the repopulation program is immigration, bringing in refugees from countries like Syria, Ukraine, or Venezuela and making sure they’re all here legally.

“It’s countries like that that have decent people, good working people, good families that we want to diversify our culture in this community by welcoming here. And have them do some of the jobs that frankly are going to go unfilled because we just flat out don’t have the people,” McGiffin said.

Liszniansky used Utica, New York, as an example, a post-industrial town similar to Youngstown that lost 60% of its population.

“What they did starting in 1980, they started embracing refugees. So, as people came into the country, and this happened over four decades now, they’ve actually got their population slightly on the rebound, and now one-quarter of their residents are foreign-born,” Liszniansky said.

The repopulation plan is still in the beginning stages. The marketing strategies are being formulated, but there will be a marketing strategy. They hope to reverse the trend as soon as possible.

“What we recognize is that if we continue on the pace that we are with expanding our businesses in this area and attracting new businesses in this area, we’re going to create an even bigger issue with that job imbalance.  So we need to have more people in this area,” McGiffin said.