By Steve Novotney
To listen to the complete interview with Steve Novotney and Wheeling Mayor McKenzie:
By the age of 25, Andy McKenzie had completed his undergraduate studies at West Liberty University and his MBA at West Virginia University, and he was elected to the West Virginia Senate by voters in the First District.
McKenzie was one of 34 senators and was the youngest member by a couple of decades.
By the age of 38, McKenzie had collected 12 years of Senate service, and that is when he made the decision to run for Mayor of Wheeling.
And he won. Twice.
What to do … what to do now at the age of 44 years old?
McKenzie, an investment counselor for Wells Fargo, has only a year-and-a-half remaining in his second and final term as mayor, and he will have options come 2016. U.S. Rep. David McKinley, now in his third term representing the Mountain State’s First Congressional District, has not indicated yet whether or not he will seek a fourth Election Day victory. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin possesses only two more years in office before term limits force his retirement for now, and U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin has repeatedly mentioned the possibility he will seek the Governor’s Office once again in 2016.
He’s been accused of “playing politics,” and McKenzie is a politician. He admits it, but after living what many would consider a “limelight life,” he has developed thick skin that allows him to jettison unwarranted criticism even when some have resorted to outright lying.
And that’s because McKenzie is a “facts man,” in this headline-mentality society. Ask him a question – about anything – and he will take the time to completely explain his answer in an effort to increase understanding.
Today, and tomorrow, and the next day, McKenzie will be the mayor of Wheeling, and he insists he and city council will continue addressing the municipality’s most difficult issues. In the past six and a half years, he, the city’s six council representatives, and the administration have addressed the following:
- Vacant buildings and property hoarders;
- The downtown’s 1100 block;
- The reduction of business licenses and permit fees;
- The re-creation of the city’s Human Rights Commission;
- The repeal of the two-officer-per cruiser ordinances adopted in 1972;
- The construction of a $50 million water intake plant in Warwood to replace a facility more than 80 years old;
- Long overdue renovations to Wesbanco Arena;
- The demolition of a two-block blighted area in East Wheeling to make way for the new, J.B. Chambers Recreation Park;
- The solvency of the pension funds for the city’s police and fire departments;
- And the right-sizing of the city’s government.
“There has not been one single issue that has come before city council that Mayor McKenzie did not address to the point of a resolution for not only today but for years to come,” said Vice Mayor Gene Fahey. “His motivation was to make Wheeling a better place to live, and he’s accomplished that far beyond what anyone expected.”
“I don’t care if you like Andy or not,” said Fifth Ward Councilman Don Atkinson. “You have to give him props from what’s he’s done. He and I don’t always agree, but he has always been willing to listen and change his mind.
“One thing I think he and this council have really done is to get the ball rolling on getting rid of the naysayers, and he’s refused to kick the can down the road for the future to deal with,” he continued. “Those who sit in that position in the future will be very pleased that Andy refused to shy away from the tough stuff.”
McKenzie’s political future, though, really depends on his family. He and his wife, Carrie, have been married for 20 years, and the couple has three sons (Austin, 18; Levi, 16; and Quinn, 9). McKenzie cherishes his “Dad” status, and he feels, in fact, as if he has missed some “father moments” too.
That is why his next political decision could lead him in a most surprising direction.
Novotney: Are you happy with what you have been able to accomplish as the mayor of Wheeling?
McKenzie: Well, I think as a public servant you always want more. It’s just like anything. When you are directing or in charge, you want to accomplish bigger and greater things. In Wheeling, what I quickly learned after I got elected, the Great Recession hit all over the country, and it definitely had an impact on Wheeling. Probably less than of an impact than it did on a lot of parts of the country.
But what it really did was just stop all economic development and all opportunities for growth. Everybody kind of went into survival mode.
While Wheeling really was never in survival mode because we’ve been in survival mode for 40 years, so it wasn’t much of a change. What it did is it shifted us from being fast-growth, which is where I really wanted to be, to going back and fixing the simple things. The small things. Things that you really have to have before you have great growth or great opportunity.
And so, some of the little things were fixing the police department and the multiple police officers in a car to the tax system to the fire fees to the permitting process and the pension system and cutting the size of government – or as I like to say “right-sizing” the size of government of Wheeling.
It took me a while to really navigate that but what I realized is that we can’t move forward until we solve the problems of today. And so we have had great opportunities through the years. Wheeling Hospital has really grown. OVMC has grown. Orrick has grown. Williams Lea has grown.
So there have been some really bright spots. Our school systems have improved and have invested in themselves. Things that are very important to economic development. One of the number one things people look for is good education when they move into a community. So we’re very proud to say that we have good public schools, as well as good private schools.
So, with all of that, I really look forward to the next half dozen to a dozen years in the city of Wheeling. I’ll only be the mayor for another year-and-a-half, but I think we have finally laid the ground work to do great things in our community. And fixing the pensions had to be done. Right-sizing government had to be done. Re-organizing the way we tax our citizens and change the size of government had to be done.
And I think now we can really, truly start looking forward over the next six to 12 years.
Novotney: The water plant construction project is a prime example of the “not kicking-the-can” mentality that you not only brought to the Mayor’s Office, but also your council members have adopted the same attitude. Was that a team effort? Was that something you addressed council about as soon as you were elected as mayor?
McKenzie: Well, one thing that we are very proud of is that we have not shied away from controversy. Raising water rates and investing $50 million into a water plant is not always a popular thing to do until you’re in Charleston, W.Va., and you don’t have safe, clean drinking water.
This city council has really said, “We’re not going to kick the can.” We know what needs to be done, so why not do it? I’ve asked former mayors and former city council members why we got into this situation that we are in with our pensions, with our water plant, and with our infrastructure, and the reason was, while everyone knew what the problems were, everyone was really afraid to tackle the issues.
So, the highest compliment anybody can pay me is that we have not kicked the can down the road. We’ve really said that enough is enough, and we’ve got to fix the problems. I plan on living here the rest of my life. I have three children that are living in our community, and hopefully they will have the opportunity to stay in our community.
We’ve got to fix this. Not for tomorrow. Not for even next year. We’ve got to fix our community for the next five to 30 years down the road, and I think we’ve been able to do some of those things, and the water plant is one example.
Novotney: But eight years doesn’t seem to be enough for Andy McKenzie as mayor of Wheeling.
McKenzie: Well, you know I really enjoy being mayor. I truly do. I spent the last week in Charleston, and everyone was saying, “Wow, wouldn’t it be exciting to be in the Legislature right now.” And it would be fun to be in the Legislature, I think, this year.
But it was time for me. I was there for 12 years, but it was time for me to change, so I came back to be mayor so I could live in my community and be here.
The greatest gift, other than my family, is the opportunity to serve the people of Wheeling and the great state of West Virginia. I really have enjoyed that, and I hope that the changes that we’ve made in the last six years – six-and-a-half years – really will propel our community.
Everyone wants to the same thing in our community – to be a great community. Not necessarily a bigger community, but a great community, and I think we’ve laid the groundwork to continue to evolve. I think we’re seeing that with the young people.
And look at East Wheeling. Look at what we have done in East Wheeling. You’re seeing all these young people. The 20-somethings. When I was 20, that didn’t exist. When you were 20, they all left. And now, people who aren’t even from our community are moving into our community, and saying, “I want to be a part of this.” Little things like First Fridays, like the brewpub in Centre Market, or the new restaurants or the new shops in Centre Market — those are exciting things because those are small entrepreneurs. They are not wealthy people or people of stature. They’re just people who are saying, “Hey, I want to be a part of this,” and they are excited to be a part of it.
Novotney: Speaking of the J.B. Chambers Recreation Park in East Wheeling, it seemed like a great idea, but then it turned into a great source of frustration for you and the council members.
McKenzie: Well, change does not come easy. Change in Wheeling is probably harder than it is in other communities. What we did is that the J.B. Chambers Foundation stepped up and really invested a significant amount of money in that project, and so did others. A lot of people stepped up because they really believe in this vision.
It was never about – and I have said this a million times – it was never about a soccer field. It was never about an athletic complex. It was about revitalizing East Wheeling to give the community back to the people who live there. One thing I learned as a legislator is what government does really poorly, and that’s that we like to give a little bit of money out to everyone so we could make everyone happy.
So when I came back to be mayor, I really thought, “We can’t do that in Wheeling because we’ve been doing that in Wheeling and it hasn’t worked.” We’ve given a little bit of money here and a little bit there, but we never saw significant change. So what we did was pool our money to tackle one area. What came to the top was East Wheeling, and the reason it was East Wheeling … there are a couple of reasons.
One, it’s downtown Wheeling’s closest neighborhood. Second, it was our highest-crime neighborhood. Drugs, guns, prostitution – everything we’re not proud of. What we needed to do was change the community and get people invested back into the community, so I wanted to show the people in East Wheeling that we were serious about fixing those problems.
So we went and bought 32 parcels of property of which I think about eight were inhabited. It was the most desolate block in the entire community and we tore it down and we invested millions of dollars into it. And you know what’s amazing? When I am out in that neighborhood everyone says, “Wow.”
It was about stepping up and making a difference in one of our communities.
Novotney: What has been the most frustrating aspect about being the mayor of Wheeling for the past six-and-a-half years?
McKenzie: I guess I would have to say that I would love to see our population grow.
I would like to see more jobs and opportunities in our community. That’s bigger than the mayor of Wheeling. I’ve quickly learned that. I always thought if I were the mayor, we could create these jobs, but it’s not like I can go out and force that business to come into that community. The private businesses are going to make those decisions based on economics. What my job is is to make the economics in downtown Wheeling and in the city of Wheeling look good.
And how do you do that? You clean it up. You invest in it. You fix the infrastructure. You fix pensions so we don’t go bankrupt. Things like that make our community a better community. Now all of a sudden the Orricks of the world, or the Williams Leas of the world, or the Wheeling Hospitals of the world say, “You know what? This is a great community and we need to invest in it.”
So that’s what we’re doing. When you build a house, you don’t start with the roof. You start with the foundation, so that’s what we did. We built the foundation so we can have a great house.
Novotney: You have a year-and-a-half left as the mayor, and that will mean you have been in public, elected service for 20 years. Then what?
McKenzie: That’s hard to believe. Think about it. I’m 44, and I enjoyed politics when I was little. I always had this fascination with public service. I always wanted to go into the Marine Corps. My dad was a Marine. My uncles were Marines.
But then I got involved in business at a young age. I started working in our family business when I was 13 and stayed through college. One day I was driving down a road here in downtown Wheeling and I heard on the radio that no one was running for the state Senate. I said, “I can do that.” So somehow I get on the ballot, and somehow I won.
Clearly, not everyone in the First District agreed with me, but one thing that I hope that they see is that we’ve always been honest, and we’ve always been direct, and I don’t beat around the bush as far as where I am at.
I take my integrity and I take my honesty, and I take my livelihood … that’s all there is in life. I have three boys, and I tell them that your integrity is one thing you can never ruin because once you ruin it, you can never get it back.
So … 20 years. That will be a long time.
There’s a time for everything. I did my time in the Legislature, and I’m proud of it. I knew when it was time to leave, but I don’t get to make that decision as far as being mayor because it’s a two-term limit. But eight years is enough as mayor. It’s time for someone else.
I don’t know what the next chapter is my life brings. I have a good practice as a financial adviser, and I’ve enjoyed doing that for 16 years now.
But politics has a way of figuring things out for you sometimes. I was kind of able to move into being a state senator. I was kind of able to move into being mayor. So if there is a path that opens for me, then we’ll look at it. But I have 16 months left, and I am completely focused on being mayor.
(Photos provided by the city of Wheeling)