“Retaining our youth.”
We hear the phrase all of the time in the Upper Ohio Valley, and that’s because it’s one of the most important aspects of a reviving community that is attempting to reverse population decline caused by the economic transition from manufacturing to service industries.
For decades now in Wheeling, departure was a part of life. After Little League and Girl Scouts came the high school football games and dances, and then for many who were choosing a college, it meant looking far outside the Friendly City’s borders.
And that was on purpose, too, because most wanted out and away from the decaying depression that seemed to overwhelm the mothers and fathers who were witnessing families fracture soon after the graduation ceremonies ended. Instead of opting for an education at a local college, many area graduates placed Wheeling in the rearview mirror and headed to Columbus, Pittsburgh, the Carolinas, or California. These days more people die in Wheeling than are born, and it’s been that way for more than a decade.
Not everyone left, though, and the vast majority of public and private leadership positions are filled by natives of the Northern Panhandle and East Ohio, but Wheeling is not what it used to be, and no one can deny it. The public pools are far less crowded in the summer these days, golfers are scarcer now than in the past 50 years, downtown Wheeling empties after 5 p.m. each day, and high school graduating classes at Wheeling Park High School are now number fewer than 400.
It’s plain to see.
“I can tell as a person who has walked the city of Wheeling while going door to door near election time that this issue is on a lot of people’s minds,” said Wheeling resident James Guy. “People want to know what our elected officials can do about this issue because we can all see that it’s taking place. Parents want to keep their kids here, but one after another they leave for better opportunities.
“In other states, there is legislation that’s been crafted and is now moving forward to address this issue in very real ways, and that needs to happen in West Virginia in the very near future, or there will be more cut services, our roads will get even worse, and the problems we have now will only get worse,” he continued. “At least in Wheeling, we’re having that conversation, and I think it needs to move forward to being a statewide discussion.”
Mom and Dad … and Teachers, too
Parents wish for their children to be happy and successful no matter what they decide to do once reaching adult age, but many mothers and fathers now must travel for visits. I am one of the lucky parents because my son, Michael, has remained in Wheeling since graduating from West Liberty University in 2010, and my daughter, Amanda, lives only 74 miles away in Cranberry, Pa.
Far too often, though, reunions must be vacations instead of day trips, but some feel the tide could be turning in the Friendly City.
“I think we are doing a fair job of retaining our young people, but I also think there’s a lot of room for improvement,” said Gene Fahey, vice mayor and Ward 6 council representative in Wheeling. “I believe it starts with the parents. They have to talk with their children and tell them about how great a place this really is, and they have to explain the reasons why.
“And that goes for our teachers and anyone else who plays an influential role with our young people,” he said. “I have seen a lot more pride in our city over the past five years, and that’s exactly what it takes. For far too long we didn’t pay much attention to the positives in our city, but I have seen that changing, and that’s a good thing.”
Fahey also believes that the increasing costs for higher education will lead more local graduates to remain in the Friendly City for their college years.
“We have a lot of great colleges and universities in Wheeling and in the Upper Ohio Valley, and I think we’ll see a lot of student choose to remain local to get their degrees because of the expense involved with going away for college. I think that will give our young people a chance to investigate what opportunities are in the Wheeling area.”
Wheeling Island resident Lynne Walton watched her 18-year-old daughter, Allison, graduate from Wheeling Central Catholic High School earlier this month, and soon she will move into her dormitory in Morgantown to attend West Virginia University.
Beyond that college education, though, Walton has no idea whether or not her only child will return to Wheeling.
“I guess it depends on what she decides to do for a living and if those kinds of jobs are available in this area,” Walton said. “I have talked with her about coming home after college, and she does love this area, but I also know she’s looking forward to living in Morgantown because it’s not Wheeling.
“But I think most of the kids coming out of high school think the same thing about their hometowns,” she continued. “I know I did when I graduated from John Marshall. I think it’s a natural thing, but I also think once people do move out of the Valley, they miss it before too long. Hopefully, that’s the guess with Allison.”
Larry Bandi, president of Wheeling Central Catholic, reported that institutions of higher education in Wheeling have initiated efforts to offer curriculum that applies to what opportunities are available in the Wheeling area.
“I think it’s happening,” said Bandi. “As a board member of the West Virginia Northern Community College Foundation Board, that is something we have discussed often, and it’s something the college has concentrated on by adding to the curriculum.
“The same thing is taking place at Wheeling Jesuit, too,” said Bandi, who is a board member at WJU, too. “A lot of effort is being made to recognize the opportunities that do exist in Wheeling and the surrounding area so that the curriculum can change accordingly.”
Bandi reported that a new program recently was introduced during the 2014-2015 school year that involves Wheeling Central’s students and local business owners.
“We have just started a program here that focuses on local opportunities because there are more of those now than we have seen in many years,” he said. “We have had local employers come in and talk about what their companies do and what opportunities there will be when it comes time for those students to graduate and enter the workforce.
“It takes a good system to make sure that our student body knows about what opportunities are here and although what we are doing isn’t there yet, it will be,” Bandi continued. “We have seen a lot of people come back here because they’ve realized how much they love Wheeling, and that’s something we should make our students aware of.”
Retaining and Recruiting
Making a case for Wheeling is something Glenn Elliott is attempting to do because of what he discovered upon his return to the area a few years ago. After living in the Washington, D.C., area for nearly two decades, Elliott returned, purchased a building in downtown Wheeling, operated the Elliott Law Firm, and is now a candidate for Mayor of Wheeling.
He did it, so why couldn’t others when returning to their hometown?
“On the city level, we need a cohesive strategy to reach out not only to local high school students approaching graduation but also to Wheeling natives who left for college and found employment elsewhere. We need to make that case for Wheeling as a city of opportunity by highlighting local successes and emphasizing our strengths: low cost of living, great parks, great schools, and low crime,” he said. “We also have to admit that the supply of high-quality jobs in Wheeling still can’t satisfy the demand, and so we’re going to lose some students to greener pastures. But that’s OK, as long as we have a strategy to lure them back in the future.
“Bringing back as many natives as possible should be a primary focus of city government. We need to tell our story to those 30-to-40-something natives who have had successful careers and have money saved who could return home and start that business they’ve always dreamt of,” he said. “I’m 43 and have a lot of friends who fit this description perfectly. We must engage them. Let’s sell them on Wheeling entrepreneurship.”
Elliott also believes public transportation is a key factor to adding population and should be addressed so access improves for everyone.
“We must strive to make Wheeling a place where young people want to be. For many so-called millennials, that means living where they don’t need to depend on a car for day-to-day transportation. And let’s face it; Wheeling is not a very friendly city to people who either cannot or choose not to drive,” he said. “Our public transportation system needs to be expanded to reflect actual residents’ lifestyles, and we need to focus on creating housing in and around our primary business districts, particularly downtown and Elm Grove, so people can choose to live within walking distances of their jobs, restaurants, clubs, and grocery stores.
“Young people also seek civic engagement. On average, they tend to prefer being active participants in the making of their communities rather than passive consumers of its products,” Elliott continued. “And there are many opportunities in Wheeling for people to make a difference in ways that might not exist in larger cities. For the first time in decades, there are more people in Wheeling talking about its future than lamenting its past. Now is the time to act.”
That is happening, according to Jake Dougherty, the director of ReInvent Wheeling.
“For many years retaining our young people after high school and college was Wheeling’s biggest challenge, and I think it’s been addressed recently, and we’re doing a much better job than before,” he said. “I believe the one area where we have really improved is letting the younger people know that they can get involved with this community and have an impact.
Dougherty, a 2008 graduate of The Linsly School, is also encouraged by the number of natives who have chosen to return to Wheeling after spending several years outside the area.
“Those folks have seen that there are opportunities here now, and that wasn’t the case when they graduated and left for college,” he said. “I grew up in Wheeling in the late 1980s and during the 1990s, and that’s when this area lost a lot of people during those years, and that’s because it was understood that if you wanted to be successful, you were going to have to move away.
“I didn’t have teachers or anyone else tell me that when I was in high school. It was just understood,” Dougherty said. “But a lot of things have changed, and that has led to a change in the mindset.”
The ‘Stay in the State Act’
Some regions of West Virginia, like the northern panhandler, have a better chance to add populations than others because of proximity to larger cities like Pittsburgh and Columbus and because of a lower cost of living. Property taxes, for example, are far less expensive in Ohio County than in Allegheny County in Pennsylvania.
“And that makes a big difference to someone who is looking to move into an area that is close to Pittsburgh,” said David Miller, the Wheeling Council representative for Ward 4. “This area has a lot going for it, and our proximity to Pittsburgh is a positive just like our tax structure here. When you compare our property taxes with what people have to pay in the Pittsburgh area, the difference is staggering, and we have a lot of people choosing to live in Wheeling rather than paying what they have to pay in Allegheny County.
“Plus, we have an outstanding quality of life in the Wheeling area, and I think a lot of people who have been able to live here their whole lives take that for granted sometimes,” he said. “I really believe we have already bounced off the bottom and we are now on our way back up as a community. We just need more private dollars making investments so that in the future more of our young people will have the option of staying here, working here, and making Wheeling the great place it can be.
“There are options for those who wish to become lawyers or doctors or nurses. You can do those things here, but as a person who found himself in a situation where I had to go somewhere else to do what I wanted to do, I can tell you that it’s a tough decision to make,” he said. “When a city loses the steel industry and hundreds of jobs that went with it, those jobs don’t just come right back. It takes a lot of time to replace those kinds of opportunities.”
W.Va. Del. Shawn Fluharty (D-3rd) heard not a word about population decline during his first regular session of the state’s legislature, but he plans to change that when state lawmakers convene in February.
“We are not doing enough as a state to encourage our young people to remain home once their education is complete,” said Fluharty. “I think this is the number one issue facing our state right now, and we have to figure out something fast.
“That is why I plan to introduce during the next regular session what I refer to as the, ‘Stay in the State Act.’ Our state must incentivize staying here by going to school here in West Virginia, and then being employed by a West Virginia business,” he said. “Such legislation would make some tax breaks available to those students who have student loans. Is it going to be the end-all, be-all? No, but at least it’s a start.”
Fluharty, though, realizes that starting salaries in other areas of the country are far more attractive than what is offered throughout a state in which its top employer has been Walmart since 1998.
“And government cannot change that,” he said. “But I also think we can offer West Virginia businesses some tax breaks for hiring West Virginians once they complete college. The federal government does offer some credits while students are paying off their loans. It’s not much, but it’s something, and the state does nothing along those lines.
“I heard nothing about our population problem during the last regular session, and that amazed me because we all know what’s coming. We all know that we have an aging population in West Virginia, and we know our young people are leaving more and more every year,” Fluharty continued. “We need to start thinking ahead instead of reacting to everything when it’s too late. That happens far too often, and it’s time for that to change.”
(Photos by Steve Novotney)