WHEELING, W.Va. — For decades, the Ohio Valley has seen some of its best and brightest move away in search of opportunity. That trend has been partially reversed thanks to the economic malaise that has gripped the country since 2008.
Faced with limited opportunities in the few remaining enclaves of prosperity – typically large coastal cities -young people are purposely relocating to low-rent areas where it’s easier to make a go of things and make their mark. This trend is breathing new life into Rust Belt cities such as Detroit, Cleveland, and, yes, even Wheeling.
“It’s so easy to fall into a good crowd here,” said 30-year-old Jon-Erik Gilot, who recently moved home from Pittsburgh. “So many people are working hard to make Wheeling a better place.
And they’ve been very welcoming to me. In return, I’m trying to do whatever I can to make our city a better place for me and my family. That’s harder to do in a big city. It’s easy to go to a big city and become faceless.”
Gilot grew up near Colerain and graduated from Buckeye Local High School. When he graduated from Bethany College, he left the area for Washington, D.C. to take a job with the Library of Congress.
After getting his master’s degree in Librarian Information Sciences at Kent State University, he settled in Pittsburgh.
The Ohio Valley, however, was always at the back of his mind. As a new parent, Gilot remembered the local area being a good place to grow up. And when an archivist position opened in 2012 at the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, he threw his hat in the ring.
He got the job and moved his family to a house on Edgewood Street in Wheeling. He makes it clear that coming home was intentional and not an admission of defeat.
“I think there is a stigma attached when younger people move back here,” he said. “I worry that people think I couldn’t hack it somewhere else. It’s not something that people would directly say, but it’s assumed – that your family is supporting you or whatever. And that’s not the case at all. I’m glad to be by my family but we’re here doing it on our own – on purpose.”
Forty-three-year-old Glenn Elliott moved back to Wheeling in 2009, though not intentionally. His plan at the time was to take a year off from the corporate world regroup in his hometown and move on to something else. But Wheeling hooked him within the space of a few months.
And he now has no plans to leave. Ever.
A 1990 graduate of The Linsly School, Elliott graduated from the University of Pennsylvania before taking a job working for longtime U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd in Washington. He worked there until 1999, when, at the senator’s suggestion, he started law school at Georgetown University. Finding himself saddled with several hundred thousand dollars worth of student loan debt, he took a job at the international firm Baker Botts.
“I got disillusioned with big law,” he said. “I was burned out. So I quit my job. Really, I just wanted to figure out what to do with the next chapter of my life.
“The reason I came back to Wheeling was the low cost of living. I got involved with some political folks and worked on some campaigns. And I joined the Ohio Valley Young Preservationists. And after about a year here, it became clear that I was becoming part of the community.”
Elliott purchased a building – the Professional Building at 1300 Market St. – and is in the process of marketing it to prospective tenants and starting his own small law firm. The new Elliott Law Offices will be located in the building and will focus on small business law. He does his best to evangelize on behalf of the city.
“The pitch now is to folks who have left, done well, but have come up against walls in their careers,” he said. “Those people need to come back here and create jobs. Entrepreneurship is back. You can buy real estate here. The prices are good and there are a lot of great buildings. But we need to get jobs. We’re not there yet but we’re heading in that direction. Wheeling is a blank canvas on which you can do a lot of things.”
Growing up in the Mount Olivet area in Marshall County, Jake Dougherty always knew he was going to leave home.
“I had plans of moving away and working different jobs and making lots of money,” said the 24-year-old. “That was the plan. To grow up, move away and find other opportunities.”
When he graduated from The Linsly School in 2008, he did just that. He graduated from American University and then joined the event planning start-up “Drink to District” in Washington, D.C. He worked at his communications manager position for a few years, but had become intrigued with the possibility of moving back to Wheeling just shortly after leaving for college.
“I left in 2008 and that’s just when the Capitol Theatre restoration project was starting to happen,” he said. “And as I followed its progress from D.C., I thought it was going to be a catalyst for what Wheeling could become. I got an internship in the summer of 2009 and helped with some of the work on the theatre. That summer made me realize Wheeling was an option.”
Dougherty moved back home in 2013 with the idea that he wanted to do more. He wanted to “change people’s lives.” And so he took a position with ReInvent Wheeling, a group that handles events such as First Fridays, Show of Hands, the Heritage Sculpture Garden and the murals under the I-70 overpass.
Now as director of ReInvent Wheeling, Dougherty’s currently looking for a place to live in East Wheeling. His advice for people considering a similar move?
“Just do it,” he said. “The special thing about Wheeling is that it’s a place for people seeking opportunity – where they can do things they couldn’t do anywhere else. Here, you can be on the board, or quickly get involved in the community.
“I felt so anonymous in D.C. That was one of my frustrations. Here in Wheeling, I have opportunities to get involved and help guide what’s happening.”