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Local leaders in Steubenville, Weirton react to New York Times column


For The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register

STEUBENVILLE, Ohio — Local business and economic development leaders were incensed by a column that appeared in the New York Times last week depicting the Steubenville-Weirton area as ill-suited to thrive or recover from the Great Recession.

The column, “Why Big Cities Thrive and Smaller Ones are Being Left Behind,” appeared Oct. 10, written by Eduardo Porter, a well-known journalist, author and lecturer. It was based on research by Mark Muro of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program.

The column stated the nation’s small cities won’t recover due to inefficiency, low wages and a lack of a depth of the talents needed in today’s economy. It concluded by stating, “The future for small-city America looks dim. Perhaps the best policy would be to help them move to a big city nearby.”

Local leaders said the column failed to note the investment by Bidell Gas Compression of Canada in the repurposing of the 100,000-square-foot machine shop that formerly served Weirton Steel Corp. — right across the street from the long-cold blast furnaces featured in the photo which accompanied the New York Times column.

Bidell’s $4 million investment will include 60 jobs to start with as many as 40 more to come.

And Italy’s Pietro Fiorentini has broken ground in Weirton on its first permanent manufacturing facility in the U.S. The $9 million facility will employ as many as 150.

Steubenville Mayor Domenick Mucci was instrumental as executive director of the Jefferson County Regional Planning Commission at obtaining brownfield reclamation grants to clean environmentally compromised former industrial sites and prepare them for reuse. He said the statistics cited in the column ignore the investments in brownfield rehabilitation, redevelopment, job retention and job retraining being done in the area.

Brenda Mull, president of the Weirton Area Chamber of Commerce, was angered by the column.

“I am puzzled why the New York Times continually wants to make Weirton its poster child,” she said. “We have had a decline, as have other small cities across the country. But why not mention the upside: the new businesses like Bidell Gas Compression from Canada or Pietro Fiorentini from Italy that looked at Weirton as the place they knew they could thrive in and have set up shop here.

“We do have growth here. Some journalists just choose not to notice,” she said.

Evan Scurti, executive director of the Jefferson County Port Authority, said the statistics in the story do not reflect the restart of part of the Mingo Junction steel plant, or investments being made in other former steel properties to put them to new uses, such as the former Yorkville Wheeling-Pitt facility.

He noted there are more than 70 new jobs at River Rail on the Ohio River at the former Weirton Steel site at Steubenville, and major investments have been made by the Franciscan University of Steubenville.

“Obviously, large metropolitan areas have more employers. There are plenty of ‘Steubenvilles’ around the country and they singled us out. We do have to work harder in some ways to prepare sites, but we are getting the investments. It’s very unfair,”Scurti said.

Patrick Ford, executive director of the Business Development Corp. of the Northern Panhandle, notes that investment is coming domestically and from places including Japan, Canada and Italy.

Even steel has international local investment. In Mingo Junction, a firm from India has resumed operations of part of the former Wheeling-Pittsburgh steel mill. Mingo Junction’s income tax revenue is up 10 percent this year so far, village officials reported in September.

“Don’t give me this stuff that we are inconsequential and we are dying. We are coming back, and we are coming back strong,” said Ford.

The New York Times column failed to note the billions of dollars that are being invested in the wider region, with the Royal Dutch Shell ethane cracker at Monaca, Pa., less than a half-hour’s drive to the north, and the potential PTT cracker in Belmont County, a 30-minute drive to the south, and the potential spinoff industries and jobs they will bring.

Ford, who worked in economic development for three Pittsburgh mayoral administrations before coming to the BDC in 2009, said the article indicated smaller cities are not able to respond as well as larger areas during periods of economic upheaval.

“The advantage we have is that there is a shorter ladder to decision-makers. Someone like me has the phone number of the mayor and the county commissioners and the governor’s phone number and can call a U.S. senator. And that puts us two calls away from the president of the United States,” Ford said.

Ed Looman of the Appalachian Partnership for Economic Growth said oil and gas has provided income to people holding leases and to local people who have found jobs, pointing to the expansion of firms such as MPW in Mingo Junction, which has added employees.

“It’s not huge numbers, but it is stable employment. Economic development people up and down the river are working very hard to get sites ready and the work force trained for what we anticipate will come when the (PTT Global) cracker is announced,” he said.

As for the column’s contention that small cities lack in depth and breadth of employable talent in today’s world, Ford said, “Two companies who have broken ground in Weirton have said it better than I could: Bidell Gas Compression, based in Canada, is working with our local high schools and local community college to establish a steady pipeline of manufacturing workers. The local labor force and training opportunities were drivers in the decision of Pietro Fiorentini to locate in Weirton. …

“(Companies) like Ergon do not make $100 million investments if there is not a labor force to support them. People from Japan and Canada and Italy do not make millions of dollars in investments in a community without a labor force,” Ford said.

According to Census Bureau figures, while the Steubenville-Weirton area lost 2,461 residents between 2010 and 2014 based on the number of deaths compared with the number of births, the labor force grew by 402 from August 2015 to August 2016. And, a net migration of 1,408 has occurred, according to the Census Bureau in figures provided by the Brooke-Hancock-Jefferson Metropolitan Planning Commission.

The new residents have largely come from Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, the Youngstown area, the Washington, D.C., area and the Atlantic City, N.J., area. In addition, 123 have migrated from outside the U.S. to the three-county area.

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