By Steve Novotney
He’s heard it before. He’s seen efforts begin only to see them fizzle. He’s listened to one great idea after another that has been introduced with fantastic fanfare but soon silenced by reality.
Wheeling resident Pete Holloway has been a fixture in the Friendly City for several decades. Upon returning to the Upper Ohio Valley after his undergraduate and graduate studies were complete, Holloway utilized his master’s degree in music composition to work initially as a music teacher and a piano instructor.
Following a few years, the Wellsburg native chose to reinvent his professional career by gaining employment with the Wheeling financial firm of Hazlett, Burt and Watson, located on Chapline Street in downtown Wheeling. His career began with cold calls. One after another.
“I called and called and called, and I just kept running into a wall,” he said. “But then, every once in a while, the wall would move a little, and now after a little more than 33 years, I’m still at it.”
From his Chapline Street perch Holloway has witnessed decline and then a foundering city embattled by population loss, economic decline, and everything else that has impacted the country’s Rust Belt region. Changing consumer trends, federal free trade agreements, and a dependence on foreign-based manufacturing led to abandoned factories, higher-than-ever unemployment, and an empty downtown Wheeling.
“In the late 1970s, Weirton Steel had 14,000 employees. That’s half the size of today’s Wheeling,” he said. “Think about that, and then remember the same thing happened to other steel producers and most of the other factories along the Ohio River.
“What really happened to Wheeling was the ‘frog-in-the-boiling-water’ routine where a store would close, and then a couple of months later, another store would close. But then it just kept happening, and then all of a sudden the Wheeling that was a retail center wasn’t any longer,” Holloway recalled. “We had the mall and all the other competition, and Wheeling got into trouble not because we wanted to and not because there was a conspiracy, but because things went wrong.
“Technology, competition, etc., and there were a lot of people who just kept putting walls up. Nothing could be done.”
There were efforts made to reverse the economy similar to the current effort in the Friendly City today. Organizations such as ReInvent Wheeling and OV Connect have rallied residents of all ages, but especially the younger demographics in hopes of reclaiming the region.
“That seems to happen every 10 years or so,” Holloway said. “And if they had 100 people in a room in the beginning, in six months it was 20 people. And then those efforts totally evaporated.
“What I’m talking about is a sustainable reaction, and I believe that finally there are enough people here now. There really is a commitment here now.”
Holloway has welcomed those natives who have chosen to return to Wheeling, and he believes today’s Wheeling has the chance to react to the influx caused by the presence of the oil and gas companies. Not only are there thousands of non-locals in the Upper Ohio Valley working within the industry, but he recognizes the fact that local residents are gaining gas and oil employment, as well.
Local business owners, too, have benefited.
“Wheeling has achieved critical mass thanks to the people moving back, and thanks to the gas and oil money, and together there is going to be a synergy,” he said. “It’s self-sustaining. If you look around, things are happening in terms of the reverse of the ‘frog in the boiling water,’ but it’s not going to happen overnight. We will get something here, and something there. There will be acceleration.
“Things are happening. Things are changing. It’s moving step-by-step in the right direction,” Holloway said. “There is a lot of positive energy, and I am beginning to sense the disappearance of the negativism. It’s around, still, but I don’t think it’s as prevalent as it once was. It’s too easy to be negative. We just have to keep pushing.”
There exist positives and there exist negatives, Holloway acknowledges. This region, much like most areas of the country at this time, continues struggling with the issue of drug abuse and associated criminal activity, and the city’s demographics are also lopsided.
“I do see people of all generations working together to make a lot of great things happen,” he said. “But I like to talk about a wine glass – you have the bowl, you have the stem, and you have the base,” Holloway explained. “The bowl is the income that some are making – those who are making a great deal of money. And then you have the lower-income people, and that’s represented by the base.
“And then the middle class is the very narrow stem of the glass,” he said. “How do we get people to move up? We have a very small middle class in this town right now. That’s where we are hurting because they all moved away.”
Holloway also sees in the future an issue involving leadership within the Friendly City.
“We’re going to see a lot of unseasoned younger people stepping into those very important positions,” he said. “That could be a good thing, and it could be a bad thing. The one problem is that Wheeling has had an issue of the older people staying on for a long time.
“There could be a real problem with the future leadership because there may not be enough people to fill all of those spots,” he said. “My hope is that these positions are filled with folks who are passionate about what the organization does instead of simply doing it for their obituary.”
Imperative issues for those who are searching for a new area in which to locate are consistently education and safety, and the city of Wheeling currently offers a low crime rate compared to other areas in the Upper Ohio Valley, and the public, private, and parochial educations offered are often award winning.
The municipality is also surrounded by institutions of higher education with West Virginia Northern Community College, West Liberty University, Wheeling Jesuit University, Bethany College, Ohio University Eastern, and Belmont College.
“We are very lucky to have such great school systems here in Wheeling, and they do compete against each other, so that keeps them on their toes,” Holloway said. “We have a lot of great colleges and universities that are in our community too, and that’s also a huge positive.
“But how do we get our colleges more integrated with the community? That’s one thing we have to figure out,” he continued. “I think that will be an important factor as we move into the future.”
He can be seen at noon lunch meetings, and he meets many while enjoying a plethora of social activities during the evenings. He has his own cable television show on West Liberty University’s TV 14, and he often pens commentaries for local publications.
Holloway is out there, but why?
“Why not? That’s just the way I am built,” Holloway said. “Because of the TV show, I’ve had people tell me they see me more than they see their own wives.
“I don’t know if I have a role in the future of this city,” Holloway said. “I just know that we have to keep pushing. We have to get involved. Personally, I’m driven. I’m a driven person.”
He sees what he sees, and he believes what he believes, but when it comes to predicting the future for the Friendly City in which he’s worked and lived for nearly four decades?
“I honestly wish I could answer that question,” Holloway said. “I do know that the gas and oil business is going to continue for a number of years, and that means we’ll start seeing some of the spin-offs that are already happening.
“There are a lot of businesses in our community who are seeing an increase in their business because there are people here from outside the area, but also because more of our young people are staying now because of the opportunities,” he continued. “We’re going to continue seeing additional businesses and more jobs in the years to come, but we’ll have to wait to see how this community reacts to it all.”
(Photos by Steve Novotney)