It has been a mindset in Wheeling for the past 40 years: Once you graduate from a Wheeling high school, you got out and seldom looked back.
If students ventured off to college, likely there wouldn’t be an employment opportunity in the Wheeling area after graduation, so they would need to look outside the Valley. The decline in manufacturing up and down the Ohio River also led to the departures of those who chose to go straight to the workforce after high school.
It’s why the city’s population has continued to decline to around 28,000 residents, and it’s why the death rate today is higher than the current birth rate. It’s referred to as the “Brain Drain,” and it’s an epidemic running rampant in many Rust Belt communities and in most areas of West Virginia.
With that in mind W.Va. Del. Shawn Fluharty (D-3rd) introduced the “Stay in the State Act,” a proposal that involved West Virginia college graduates gaining employment with companies that would offer tax credits to offset the cost of education for college graduates who remain in the state. Although his Third District colleague, Del. Erikka Storch, (R-3rd) co-sponsored the legislation, it still received little attention during a regular session where “Right to Work” and Religious Freedom Restoration bills attracted the most attention.
Storch, currently seeking re-election for a third term in the House of Delegates, is a mother of three, and they include her son, Seth, a young man who just returned home following his freshman year at the University of Kentucky. Because he registered credits for only core classes, this summer he plans to seek a general labor job.
“I have also debated on applying to work for UPS because they allow employees to do a tuition reimbursement program, which I find to be a very interesting and helpful program for those trying to minimize the costs of school,” said the 2015 Linsly graduate.
It was an easy decision for Storch to return to his hometown this summer. Unlike some, he’s pleased that his mother and father, Tom, made the decision they did.
“I think that Wheeling is one of the best places I have ever visited as far as raising a family, and I think that my parents made a smart decision in staying in Wheeling to raise our family,” he said. “Wheeling has proven to be full of opportunities for employment for both of my parents, and it is close to family. I’m a firm believer that after growing up in Wheeling, it is hard to leave.”
It is the performing arts that have grabbed Wheeling Park High sophomore David Gaudio, son of Clare McDonald and Wheeling attorney Bob Gaudio. David recently performed in Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” as a member of the Park Players and has been on the Towngate Theatre stage several times.
“I have (enjoyed growing up in the Wheeling area),” he said. “I think Wheeling is a wonderful place, and my childhood here has been great, in no small part due to the Oglebay Institute, which I can’t praise enough.”
Monica Minor is a 17-year-old junior at Wheeling Central Catholic High School, and she’s the second-oldest of four children of Bryan and Monica Minor. Her brother, Joey, just finished his freshman year at West Virginia University, but will now venture off to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.
“I have enjoyed every little bit of growing up in my hometown. It holds all my memories of my childhood, and I continue to make more memories as I become a young adult,” she said. “Playing in our neighborhood park, going to Oglebay’s Good Zoo, swimming at Wheeling Park’s pool, ordering Coleman’s fish, and eating a good slice of DiCarlo’s Pizza are memories you can’t make anywhere but in Wheeling.
“I have personally found that our community is beyond helpful and caring, especially at my parish and grade school, St. Vincent de Paul in Elm Grove, and at Central Catholic High School,” Minor continued. “I have enjoyed growing up in a small town rather than living a big city but in a place that has many features of a larger city. I like seeing familiar faces instead of so many strangers.”
What the Youth Want in Wheeling
All of these students professed their favorite aspects about growing up in the Wheeling area, but they also recognized a need for, well, more for young people between the ages of 13-18 years old.
“I’d say acting in the community theaters (as my favorite part), because I enjoy acting very much,” Gaudio reported. “And the people I have met while acting are some of the greatest friends I have.”
“I love going to Oglebay Park. It provides a getaway for so many out-of-town guests, but the park is beautiful and peaceful, and I am one of those local residents who enjoy visiting it,” Minor said. “I love running and walking, and Oglebay is a great place for those activities. It also has affordable and family-friendly activities, which is a plus for my family of six.”
Storch, though, did not cite an activity as his favorite part because his perspective changed while living in Lexington and attending UK.
“One of the best things about Wheeling would have to be the people,” he said. “This probably seems like the answer that is always given when asked this question, but it is true.
“I have been fortunate to meet so many wonderful people in my time growing up, and I hold the utmost respect and admiration for them. Plus, whenever someone in the community is in need of anything people are always there to lend a helping hand,” Storch continued. “One thing you notice after leaving is that not everyone is as friendly as the people of Wheeling.”
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An issue over playgrounds has been made during the municipal election cycle because, while a new facility was constructed in East Wheeling and the I-470/J.B. Chambers Complex has continued to grow and improve, other city-owned recreational facilities have continued to rust away. When these three local high school students were asked what they believe is most needed, though, their answers focused on social amenities rather than swing sets and monkey bars.
“Wheeling needs new places for teens to go to on weekends so we can gather and have a good time,” Minor said. “My grandparents tell me stories about all the fun they had every weekend in their hometowns of Wheeling and Moundsville. That’s back when they had soda fountains, smaller theaters in town, and establishments that welcomed young people.
“What few places we had in Wheeling when I was a young child are now closed, including Foggy Bottom and the bowling alley next door,” she continued. “Why is this important? Because sometimes all teens really want is to get out of the house.”
Gaudio, who lives outside Wheeling borders but graduated from St. Michael School before enrolling at Wheeling Park High, concurred with Minor.
“Honestly? Wheeling needs more places for teenagers to be with other teenagers, like clubs or something of that nature,” the 15-year-old sophomore said. “Hanging out in restaurants or at a friend’s house is okay, but it’s not the ideal situation.”
Youth hockey served Storch well before his high school years at Linsly, but then he noticed a void of activities catering to the city’s teenagers.
“When I was younger, I spent all of my time from October to February at the Wheeling Park skating rink. This is what most of my friends did, as well, since we were all centered around the WAHA community,” he explained. “I felt as though once I entered high school, I was beginning to be too old for this crowd and began working as a skate guard rather than attending recreationally.
“I am not exactly sure what Wheeling could do to help these kids have something safe to do in their free time,” Storch continued. “But I think it would have been nice to have a place to spend my time throughout high school.”
Country Road Take Me Home?
There was once a day when most Americans owned garbage cans with a Wheeling Steel sticker glued to them, and Jamboree U.S.A. out of Wheeling, W.Va., was heard pretty much across the world. Presidents visited, and contending candidates had to, too, and that’s because Wheeling was known and because Wheeling mattered.
Wheeling is not known the same way these days. It’s more about golf and gambling and history and entertainment now because tourism creates employment opportunities in the service industry.
And that is why, when Storch began meeting new people in Kentucky, few of his new friends were aware of the Friendly City.
“The majority of my classmates (excluding those from West Virginia) were not familiar with Wheeling. When explaining it to them, I had to say things such as ‘about an hour outside of Pittsburgh, Pa.,’” he explained. “That led them to believing I was from Pennsylvania instead of West Virginia. And those who were from West Virginia and knew what Wheeling was, considered Wheeling as not like the rest of West Virginia because it is so far north.”
Although his mother is a WVU graduate, Storch chose Kentucky for a few different reasons, one of which involved Wildcats basketball.
“When graduating high school, the idea of experiencing something different was appealing. I had grown up in Wheeling, and that was really all that I had known. My uncle graduated from the University of Kentucky in 1997 and wanted to show me around Lexington just to make sure I considered a possibility of going here,” he said. “Before we visited, I was most interested in The Ohio State University and of course West Virginia University. It was easy to scratch OSU off of my list because the cost of higher education currently is ridiculous.
“When I was on Thanksgiving break last fall, my uncle took me to Lexington to show me around and attend a basketball game. After I had seen how nice Lexington was, Kentucky quickly became a top contender for where to go to school,” Storch explained. “I was granted the Bluegrass Spirit Scholarship, which made the decision even more enticing.”
Gaudio has yet to consider his options concerning college, but he doubts he opts for a local institution and remains uncertain whether or not he will reside in the Wheeling area as an adult.
“I really have no idea what I want to do with myself in the future,” he said. “(As far as returning to Wheeling after college) I’m leaning towards no. I’ll come back to visit, but there are so many other places to see, that staying here for most of my life would feel like a waste.”
Minor views the future differently. While departing the Upper Ohio Valley for her years in higher education, she said, is likely, she also envisions a homecoming once she’s acquired her college degree.
“I don’t plan on staying in Wheeling for my college years; however, I see myself staying in state or in this region,” Minor admitted. “I’m undecided on where I would like to pursue my education, but I know I am ready for adventures with new people and places.
“But I want to definitely return to Wheeling. No matter where I go, I have a feeling that I will come back to live in my hometown,” she continued. “Practically all of my family lives in Wheeling, and I am extremely close to them. If circumstances change and if coming home is only for a couple days, a few years, or if it is for a lifetime, Wheeling has and always will have a special place in my heart. Wheeling is home.”
A career in law is Storch’s primary plan at this point, and he recognizes the years of education and hard work that lie ahead of him. Politics, too, could be in his future, but his future decisions will be based on opportunity, something that has increased in the area thanks to continued growth at companies like Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, Williams Lea, Tag, Wesbanco Bank, McKinley & Associates, and Kalkrueth Roofing.
“One nice thing about Wheeling is that it sits in a perfect location. Wheeling is just far enough outside of Pittsburgh and other areas in the suburbs of Pittsburgh that hold very good employment opportunities,” he said. “I, like many others have no problem working in Pittsburgh and commuting back and forth each day if I am not able to find employment in Wheeling. I am not sure that I will be able to find a job directly in Wheeling, but I will definitely look for one in that area and the surrounding areas.
“It would not be hard to convince me to return to Wheeling,” Storch insisted. “If I am able to find a prosperous employment opportunity, then I would enjoy staying in Wheeling.”
(Photos were provided by the students’ families; the cover photo – of Erika Donaghy and her daughter Fiona, is by Steve Novotney)