POLAND, Ohio — Celine Ciarniello Meek couldn’t wait to leave the area once she graduated from Poland Seminary High School.
She headed to Washington, D.C., went to culinary school, worked in a restaurant and eventually became a legal assistant in an office near the White House.
Kevin Meek graduated three years ahead of Celine at Poland. He went to Slippery Rock University and worked locally in finance for four years until he met Celine and moved to D.C.
The Mahoning Valley transplants typified the transient makeup of the city and the eclectic, fast-paced lifestyle was attractive to the young married couple. The cost of living wasn’t quite as attractive – half of their income went toward their mortgage. They were lucky to work near each other so they could ride together because parking is $300 a month, or pay $375 to ride the Metro. Throw in people always rushing somewhere and hurried commuters crippled in snarled traffic and the capital became less and less attractive.
“We liked it a lot and thought we would stay forever,” Celine says. That started to change when they would come home to visit family and saw friends were having kids and were less stressed. The Youngstown that she couldn’t wait to leave now seemed more appealing.
The couple was expecting their first child when they realized forever was shorter than they thought.
Like many people, the Meeks are examples of returning professionals adding brain gain to the area.
“When we had Luca, I would have had to start working again just to pay for daycare. We knew it was going to be expensive because of the long commute. It would have taken my whole paycheck to pay for daycare,” she says.
Job opportunities and the ability to earn money existed in D.C., but they got to a point – or the realization – that stress wasn’t worth the money. They put a plan together to return to the Youngstown area within two to three years. Kevin was working for Merrill Lynch and asked his manager to let him know if any openings became available in the Youngstown, Cleveland, Canton or Pittsburgh offices.
“My manager came to me the next day and said there is an unbelievable opportunity in the Canfield office and I shouldn’t pass it up,” Kevin says. “We were ready to move home. We just didn’t think it would be that fast.”
And it was fast. They put their house on the market and it sold in three days; they had 28 days to vacate.
Coming home was surreal as the young family lived with his and her parents for a time before they could move into their home in Poland.
That was in July. Kevin’s aspiration to have a work/life balance was now viable. “In the big cities, it seems that people are working to make as much money as they can. That’s their focus,” Kevin says. “The stress wasn’t worth the money. Even though you make less money here, you come away with more. It really opened our eyes.”
Kevin had an eight-mile commute to work in Washington, D.C., that took him an hour and 15 minutes each way. He says his commute now is the same distance and only takes him 15 to 20 minutes each way.
“I wanted two extra hours a day with him,” he says, pointing to Luca.
Celine adds that it was an incentive to have him home more with less stress and anxiety, mostly from driving. An easier commute wasn’t the only thing less stressful.
“Our parents told us not to go to the store on July 3 because it would be crazy busy,” Celine recalls. “We got there and we laughed because it was so easy. It was like being at Costco at 10 a.m. on a Tuesday,” she says with a laugh.
The first week they were back, Kevin adds, they couldn’t get over how much easier and less congested it was: “We went to get appliances and couldn’t believe someone waited on us.”
Even going to the store is easier. They said going shopping was something for which they had to plan and there was only enough time to go to one store. With her culinary background, Celine says she likes being able to go to more than one store. “A lot of places are closed on Sunday here. I don’t know if it’s the stage we’re at, but it’s kind of nice to stay home.”
The couple said the area has changed with the revival of downtown Youngstown and the region’s variety of restaurants, stores and bakeries. They like being able to drive a short distance to pick apples or go to events, instead of the 45-minute trek they made in D.C., just to get apple cider.
Celine thought she would miss the restaurants in a bigger city, but after going downtown and eating at a couple of places, that worry was gone. “The food was great and we could get food and drinks for what we would pay for at McDonald’s in D.C.”
Kevin no longer takes for granted what this area is and what it has to offer. “Don’t get me wrong, we loved D.C., and the city life is fun for a while. But to a degree it becomes unsustainable with a growing family,” he says. “This is a nice place to raise a family. And you don’t have to make a ton of money to live nicely without killing ourselves with work.” Almost in unison they say they were searching for calmness.
They know of two other friends who just moved back from Cleveland and North Carolina.
Kevin sees the area as growing and not like the area that so many people hear about as being a dying Rust Belt town with no jobs.
Celine laughs and says she’s been offered three jobs since they moved back. “We were signing our loan papers and the guy saw her background and offered her a job,” Kevin recalls.
Both say they saw their parents being so stressed out from constantly working, so “they unknowingly taught us to slow down,” Kevin says.
They are looking forward to rearing Luca around family and friends in an environment that’s not so fast-paced and super-competitive. “He will have a chance to be a kid,” Celine says.
Kevin encourages people to accept change so they can grow. He offers a quick response about how to attract people here: “Send them the housing cost listings from the area.”
“Everything about this area is a lot easier – I love it,” says the woman who never “in a million years” saw herself returning. “It just changed like someone flipped a switch. Maybe it’s a stage where I’m at in my life.”
Pictured: Kevin, Celine and Luca Meek in their Poland home. The newly remodeled kitchen was designed for Celine, who graduated from culinary school while in D.C.
Copyright 2019 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.
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