WEIRTON - Thirty years after the now-defunct National Steel Corp's fateful decision to divorce itself from its Weirton division left residents reeling in despair, hope and optimism are creeping into the business community's psyche as steel industry juggernaut ArcelorMittal prepares to sell about 850 acres it owns but doesn't need.
"People won't believe it until they see dirt fly," downtown businessman Gus Monezis said. "People are like that in the area - until they see it, it's hard for them to believe it. But there's no question it's brought a spark to the business community."
The city's planning commission already has given its stamp of approval to the steelmaker's plans to subdivide about 850 of the more than 1,700 acres they'd previously identified as excess property, paving the way for its sale. First, however, City Council will have to sign off on the changes, though Mayor George Kondik said he doesn't foresee any problem obtaining council's blessing. That should happen at council's April meeting.
LOOMING SALE — Business and government leaders in Weirton say the looming sale of hundreds of acres of prime real estate in Weirton will bring jobs and revenue to a community hungry for both. The current owner, ArcelorMittal, has sought city approval of a plan to subdivide the acreage, a precursor to its sale. While no one is saying who wants the property, an ArcelorMittal spokesman promises it will be “exciting news” for the community. -- Linda Harris
"It's been a long time coming," Kondik said. "We've all held our breath for so long, now we're ready to exhale and reap the benefits of progress."
Kondik said over the course of his 17 years in city government, "we heard so many rumors but our hopes were (dashed), so many times."
"(Now), it feels like the business community is looking at the City of Weirton from a different perspective," he adds. "They're optimistic that good things are going to be happening, and it's filtering down through the entire community."
So far, however, no one who's in the know is saying who wants the property.
"Really, I'm not at liberty to discuss any of the details of what we're doing," ArcelorMittal's Keith Nagel said. "But we're very excited, and at the right and appropriate point in the future we'll come back" for an announcement.
Nagel did say, though, it will be "exciting news" for a community hungry for jobs and revenue.
"There are enormous possibilities," adds United Steelworkers Union Local 2911 President Mark Glyptis, a member of the committee tasked in 2007 with overseeing the land sale. "The world has changed significantly since National Steel indicated it wanted to divest Weirton. The world changed then, it changed again, even more significantly, in the last 10 years, even the last five. It's a global market, and it's extremely difficult to compete against the rest of the world, so the opportunity for the sale of the land creates a huge amount of opportunity to transform this area into one of the largest growth areas in the country. I really believe it can happen, that there are good times ahead of us not only in the short-term, but also for the long-term."
The proposal would divide the acreage and attach parcel ID numbers "so we can transact properties not needed to support our tin business," Nagel said. "We are committed to our tin business, we'll remain part of the community here, but this sets us up to transact the properties we no longer need for our business.
"This has been a difficult economy," he added. "Back in 2007, our vision was not just to do a series of individual transactions it was to go out and create value back to the community, and that takes time. Particularly in a difficult economy, real estate is a tough business. We'd like for it to have gone faster, but we also need to be smart and make sure what we were doing actually ends up having value for the region."
Pat Ford, executive director of the Business Development Corp. of the Northern Panhandle, said ArcelorMittal's interest in subdividing the property coincides with the heightened real estate demand generated by shale-related industries looking to locate in the area. That's a good thing, he said.
"What's exciting about this opportunity is they also possess the infrastructure that is specifically requested by these contacts to accommodate their industry, and that's rail, water and roads," Ford said.
In point of fact, those are the very qualities that enticed the late E.T. Weir to bring his steel mill to the Northern Panhandle in the first place, Glyptis said.
"Once a large portion of the mill shut down, investors looked at our property and were intrigued," Glyptis points out. "What quickly became evident was why E.T. Weir had selected this area to build in ... this area had the rails, the highways, the river, now the airport ... it's very attractive. And it's within a day's drive of a huge portion of the U.S. population by truck or rail. Demographics play a huge role."
Glyptis said the land sale has the potential "to create many, many new jobs," something that's been in short supply in recent years.
"It's a long time since we talked about job creation as opposed to job elimination," Glyptis pointed out. "It's going to be great, not only for the city of Weirton, but for the state of West Virginia and the region as well. "
Monezis, owner of Gus's Goodies, recalls a time when, "within an eight-mile radius, there were 22,000 steelworkers and high-paying jobs."
"Heck, I was here when you couldn't walk across the street," he adds. "I remember when I was a kid, 24 or 25 years ago, making doughnuts and whatever I made I sold. I kept reading in the paper about a recession, but it never happened here. I couldn't comprehend it. Then it hit here. But for a long time, we flourished."
Now, with the potential for new, good-paying jobs in and around the city, he doesn't mind admitting he's excited - particularly since it would mean a new pool of potential customers, something everyone in the business community has been waiting for.
"Give me more people," Monezis said. "My job is to get them in here, but I can't get them in here unless we can create jobs. Of course, I'm a Weirton guy, but I think it will help everybody."
Tri-State Medical Group's J.J. Barnabei sees the subdivision application as a positive.
"We can only assume it's for something positive," Barnabei said. "You don't subdivide property without a plan of action. We do know, this Marcellus shale movement in our area is going to generate tons of jobs and even though the cracker plant isn't going to be in West Virginia, we'll still have some spillover of jobs. There is optimism that we're going to be in a job creation mode for the next decade, as opposed to a job declining mode over the last three decades."
But Barnabei, who also is a part of Lauttamus Investments in Weirton, concedes it is a slow-moving process, "it's not as fast as any of us would like it to be."
"The thing is, we've been in a job decline for 30 years," he adds. "There's no reason to think we're going to rebound from that immediately. It's going to be years before we can really change the momentum. I think we're there, but it's going to take years before we really see the difference."
And John Greco, owner of Greco-Hertnick Funeral Home, figures after years of floundering, the community is finally headed in the right direction "as far as diversifying ourselves from the steel industry."
"A lot of positive things are being developed," he points out. "I think we're going in the right direction. There's a lot of valuable land here, we have resources ... railways, the river, highways, the airport. We're prime for development.
"It's definitely an opportunity," Greco adds. "I think we're a diamond in the rough, we have a lot to offer."