By Steve Novotney
He calls it a wrecker. The rest of the world calls it a tow truck.
But 58-year-old Don Atkinson, an employee at Ace Garage in his native Fulton section of Wheeling since 1976, isn’t attempting to glamorize his employment. Instead, he insisted, he is being literal and will gladly explain that today’s tow truck is no longer a tow truck because of a wrecker’s capabilities.
In other words, it does more than tow.
Ask Atkinson any question, and he quickly will offer an answer in as few words as possible. If he doesn’t know the answer, he admits the ignorance and promises to find out and let you know.
And he does, every time.
Atkinson, a member of Wheeling City Council representing Ward 5 since 2008, has held a job since he was seven years old. Five days a week he swept hair off the floor at Jerry’s Barber Shop on National Road in Fulton. On Saturdays, he mopped and waxed those floors, and at the end of the week he earned seven dollars.
Once he grew a little taller, he started stocking the shelves at the G&G Grocery, and then he washed automobiles at King Chevrolet in East Wheeling until 1976, when he accepted his current position at Ace Garage.
Although “Have fun damn it!” is Atkinson’s consistent mantra, he has been forced to face harsh realities about his hometown and criminal activity while testifying during two murder trials. During the first case he offered information concerning the vehicle driven by a man who snatched two young women from a Wheeling laundromat and raped and murdered both of them. The second case involved his discovering the body of a dead friend who had died from a gunshot wound.
In 2000, Atkinson, the husband of Gail since July 1986, and father to 25-year-old son, Spencer, launched his campaign to become the mayor of the Friendly City because he grew fed-up with what he viewed as “lazy government.” He finished third out of nine candidates with former Mayor Nick Sparachane claiming a second term in the position.
In 2008, after winning his current council seat and earning $8,500 annually, he became increasingly frustrated because he realized two things about the operation of Mountain State municipal governments: first, not one individual involved with the operation of the City of Wheeling owns the ability to quicken the pace because of mandated state codes; and second, the time had arrived for “can-kicking” decisions to become part of the past.
Novotney: Why did you decide to run for Mayor of Wheeling in 2000?
Atkinson: To this day I am still not sure why I decided to run for mayor that year, and I wasn’t the only one. I’ve lived here my whole life, and I guess I wanted to change the direction. I was frustrated.
Because of what I’ve done for a living for so long, I know nearly everyone. I didn’t know much about politics, but I started going to the council meetings for an entire year before the election. In the end, there were nine people running for mayor and I finished third. I was really surprised.
Novotney: Do you believe your campaign, and the results, sent a particular message to the citizens of Wheeling?
Atkinson: I do, and the message I hope I sent was that a normal guy can do this and that you do not have to be loaded and prestigious. All you have to do is care about where you live.
Novotney: And then in 2008 you ran for a council seat, and this time you won over four other candidates. Did that victory surprise you?
Atkinson: I went into it not knowing if anyone would vote for me other than me and my wife, and I wasn’t even sure she would vote for me. But they did and since then I have had a lot of fun representing the residents of Ward 5 because I have always liked talking with as many people as I can. When it quits being fun, I’ll know it’s time to get out.
But a lot of things are moving along the way I think they should be moving right now – maybe not in everyone’s opinion, but I think we have made a lot of changes that had to be made. I can say this proudly: The people I work with on council right now have not just sat there waiting for something to come to us. We’ve been proactive, and we plan to continue moving forward that way.
Novotney: While many decisions you have made since becoming a member of council have attracted criticism, constructing the J.B. Chamber Recreation Park in East Wheeling was a heated a debate. Was that process the most difficult you have experienced to date?
Atkinson: The East Wheeling decision was a big one because we were taking people’s homes that were spread around a horrible concentration of blight.
And it was a lot of work. There was eminent domain and several fights with people who stood against that project. But look at it now. It’s been swamped. And I know people are still trying to say it was built for Wheeling Central, but the schedule doesn’t prove that true.
Even if it did, so what? Wheeling Central has practiced at Bridge Park for a million years, and the city owns that, too. So what makes the difference?
And the 1100 block demolitions was a big deal even though those buildings were all dumpy and falling down. It was what downtown Wheeling looked like, and taking them down changed that image for everyone. If you look at it now, it looks good, and there’s finally potential for something new in the downtown.
The construction of the new water treatment plant was a very important decision because people’s water bills increased by 53 percent to make that happen. That’s a lot of money.
If anyone would have taken a tour of the water plant, they would have quickly realized that we had to move forward with that decision. It’s something that should have been done years ago, and I have no idea why it wasn’t.
Novotney: What monumental decisions do you believe await you in the future?
Atkinson: The budget, the police and fire department pensions, and the city’s workforce are all big deals for Wheeling moving into the future. What we are trying to figure out is what our magic number is. How many employees do we need to make sure everything that needs to get done gets done?
I have always said I would never vote to layoff someone, and I never will, but if we don’t get this figured out, in a few years people will have to be cut. We have to change things so that doesn’t take place.
Novotney: Even with those decisions looming you remain convinced the future of Wheeling is a bright one?
Atkinson: I think the future is promising because a lot of things are in place now that we take for granted. We have a lot of younger folks getting involved now, and I don’t think the older folks realize it.
Wheeling is growing in different ways right now. Will Sears and Penney’s ever return to downtown like before? No, and I think people need to move past that era in the history of Wheeling. The downtown is not going to be that kind of downtown again, but it is going to become something. That’s already taking place.
The gas industry is different than what most of us are used to, but it’s putting money in most people’s pockets no matter what the naysayers want to say about it. There’s a lot going on with the gas industry, and there’s a lot of money being spent.
It’s gradually getting better, and I expect that progress to continue.
Novotney: You wish you could expedite the pace of government, but doing so is nearly impossible, isn’t it?
Atkinson: It’s terrible. I’ve learned to get myself used to that and to tell people about it because they don’t understand why it takes six weeks to put up a stop sign. The people don’t understand there are two readings for this, two readings for that, and the public hearing. It’s a process we have to follow because of the laws.
Novotney: And a frustrating part of serving on the city council involves a few property owners and how those renters go about their business, right?
Atkinson: Absolutely. Our city has the same problem that most cities have, and that’s the existence of some property owners who only care about themselves because they can. It irritates the hell out of me that we can’t do something about them. It’s the same people doing the same things.
They know there’s that limit before city government is going to come down on them, so they push it. They play the game, but they do pay their taxes. I find it amazing that these people will write checks for their empty lots, and yet they allow them to continue sitting there empty. That’s mind boggling to me. I see it as silly.
But, at the same time, we have a lot of folks who are making investments in Wheeling because they intend to increase the options in all areas of our city.
Novotney: Do you agree with the mindset that every old building needs to be preserved?
Atkinson: There are some buildings that we absolutely have to save, and there are others we do not. We need to identify the buildings that we should save and make that a priority, but we have to do it sensibly because there are some folks that want to save them all, even if they have sat vacant for the last 20 years because the owner doesn’t want to do a thing about them.
I’m as much a history buff as anyone. I love the history of our city, but I also have to accept that sometimes it’s just not feasible and reasonable.
Novotney: There are also many local residents who do not realize that serving on the city council obligates the person to much more than two regular meetings per month.
Atkinson: Most people have no idea how much work goes into being on city council. No idea. Even during non-council weeks, I have as many as four meetings. Plus, there are a lot of public functions that we all attend because that’s the right thing to do.
And that’s not to mention the amount of time it takes to respond to the emails and the phone calls about things within your ward and the many I get about issues outside of Ward 5. But those are things you have to do.
Novotney: You enjoy calling out many of the critics of Wheeling government and refer to them as the “Tighty-whitey-wearing-Cheetos-eaters”?
Atkinson: Those people are the uninformed people who don’t ask any questions and they are spreading misinformation about 99 percent of the topics they discuss.
They have to be sitting in their mom’s basement chewing on the Cheetos in nothing but their underwear. Those people probably don’t even know what the weather is like outside so how would they know anything factual about Wheeling or this valley?
They have their opinions, and that’s fine with me. I just wish they had the guts to ask the questions while identifying themselves at the same time. I’d love to call them and ask them why they chose to go about it the way they do instead of finding out the facts.
To me, those people have no lives outside of their mom’s basement.