Will the Homecomings Continue for Wheeling?

They left here, and greener pastures, better employment opportunities, and warmer temperatures are the most popular reasons why they chose to do so.

Census statistics indicate that the city of Wheeling has been losing natives to other lands since the 1940s, but the issue became eye-popping in the 1990s, when the Friendly City reportedly lost nearly 20 percent of its population. With the steel and aluminum industries now gone from the employment landscape, Wheeling currently contains more than 28,000 residents, but city officials expect that number to continue to decrease for another year or two.

Wesbanco Bank's headquarters on Market Street.
Wesbanco Bank’s headquarters on Market Street.

The service industry – not manufacturing – is the largest employer now in the Wheeling area with hospitals, retail outlets, hotels, law firms, restaurants, and companies like Williams Lea and Orrick, Sutcliffe & Herrington offering the most popular living-wage opportunities. Many Wheeling residents commute to the Pittsburgh area, too, to earn more while escaping much higher property/school taxes, and the gas and oil industries have added some jobs, too.

But those who have moved away do keep an eye on their hometown from the beginning of the separation, and they have witnessed from afar the closures, destruction, population decline, and decay during their homecoming visits to see family and friends. Recently, though, these natives insist they have seen something different. Something good. Something of promise instead of why they left here in the first place.

“The Economy, Stupid.”

Brett Mitchel was raised in the Wheeling area, and his mother still resides in McMechen. He, like many others, moved west to the Columbus area in 1988 to search for better employment than what he was able to find in Ohio and Marshall counties. He is now an Information Security Consultant for the federal government, but when he graduated from high school in 1985, he was a starving musician earning under-the-table cash that didn’t amount to enough to purchase a solid automobile.

“I was playing music in the Valley three or four nights a week to pay rent,” he said. “But I wanted to buy a decent car. I needed to get a ‘real job’ with a W-2. I tried to get hired on at Coronet Foods, and they put me on a waiting list to get a job chopping lettuce for $3.35 an hour.

Brett Mitchell
Brett Mitchell

“My girlfriend at the time had a job offer in Columbus, so I went too. Within days I got a job making $4 an hour. In that first year, I probably had six jobs,” he explained. “I could just work for a while and quit and go get another job. This was very different than Wheeling. Leaving the Valley was 100 percent about economics. I saw absolutely no way that I could get work in Wheeling, so I left.”

Cortney Hackett now lives in the Tampa, Fla., area and is employed as an English teacher. Her reasons for departing her hometown involve warmer temperatures and a relationship.

“I left Wheeling in July 2012 for several interrelated reasons. I was dating a guy who lived in Tampa. We met in Put-in Bay in May of 2011; he moved to Orlando, Fla., shortly after we met, but we decided to try the long-distance thing. He moved to Tampa, and after I visited Tampa, I decided that I also preferred it to Orlando,” the 31-year-old said. “All of my friends were in long-term relationships, engaged, married, having kids, and busy with their families. They were in the process of settling down or already settled, and I wasn’t even close.

“I had a friend who moved to Sarasota after our eighth-grade year. She and I exchanged visits over the years, which cultivated my initial desire to live in Florida,” she continued. “Plus, I HATE everything about winter, and I was on the brink of turning 30 and realized I had never lived outside of my comfort zone, and felt like I needed to find a place that could offer me the adventures and experiences Wheeling could not.

“Basically, even though I was technically moving ‘for a guy,’ it came down to a single question: What would I regret more – taking my chances in an entirely new place far from the comforts of my family and friends, or never having the adventure? I chose the adventure.”

Jayme Mumley
Jayme Mumley

Jayme Mumley is now 34 years old and is a 1999 graduate of Wheeling Park High School, and she has moved away, returned home, and then moved away again. The native of Elm Grove initially moved away in 2005 because she was unable to find employment in the field of business marketing.

“I was bartending, so I uprooted to Charleston, S.C., as my dad was down there for work. What an incredible city,” she said. “I worked for a flooring distributor as a marketing and sales associate. In 2009 when the market plummeted, the flooring business slowed down as no one was building homes. They got rid of the marketing department, and I was back to square one.

“I wasn’t sure if I wanted a career in marketing/sales anymore. I have always been interested in health care and helping people, so my mom, who has been a nurse for over 30 years, gave me an offer I could not refuse,” Mumley recalled. “She advised me to move back to Wheeling, move in with her, and go to nursing school. So in 2010 I started school at WVNCC. They have the most amazing nursing program and faculty. When I graduated, I wanted to move to the beach. I felt bad leaving again, but I just love the sunshine. So here I am in Florida now.”

Seeing Is Believing.

Scot Duvall graduated from The Linsly School in 1983, and he’s lived in Louisville since 1990. He is an attorney who specializes in intellectual property, and he’s married and has three children.

Duvall, a former resident of Laurel Avenue, keeps tabs on his hometown by speaking with relatives and using the Internet to access homegrown media outlets such as Weelunk.com.

“Most of what I have heard about from friends, and what I saw myself the last time I was home, has been about the pipe-liners coming to town to work,” the 49-year-old said. “It seems as if there has been some effort to develop new projects, but not everything has been successful, but on the plus side it is great to see the Capitol (Theatre) up and running again.”

Scot Duvall
Scot Duvall

Jamie Stahl Bowsher lived in Wheeling until 1984, when she moved away to Baytown, Texas. After two years, she then moved to Columbus to be closer to home and to teach in the public school system. She is still in Ohio’s capital city, but her heart remains in the Friendly City.

In fact, this 1980 graduate of Wheeling Central Catholic High School started the, “I Grew Up in the Grove” page on Facebook and serves as a co-administrator in the very popular, “Memories of Wheeling” Facebook page.

“I am seeing a kind of rebirth, or renaissance, in Wheeling right now,” Bowsher said. “I am impressed by the young people who are trying to revitalize Wheeling. Wheeling has had a difficult few decades. It is nice to see some positive things.

“I am concerned about the changes brought about by the oil and gas industries,” she continued. “The worn roads, huge trucks barreling down narrow roads, and out-of-town workers who have no connection or pride for the city are concerning.”

Rebecca Brafford Hamilton is now 49, and she was raised along Dement Road in Ohio County and in the Elm Grove section of Wheeling . She graduated from Wheeling Park in 1984, from West Virginia University in 1988, and then earned her master’s in 1990.

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Hamilton has a lot of family who continue residing in the Wheeling area, and she travels home more often now to care for her mother. Those visits, plus what she has seen online concerning the new “Wheeling Feeling,” allow her to believe there may be a future for her native city.

“I feel like I’m seeing a resurgence in interesting little shops and restaurants in the Centre Market area, and I saw an article recently about a young woman who opened a little massage/soap/gift shop as well,” she said. “It’s great to think that people are returning to Wheeling after college and not living elsewhere to raise their families and live permanently.”

Rebecca Brafford Hamilton
Rebecca Brafford Hamilton

Mitchell, who does return to the Wheeling area at least once per month, said the city of Wheeling is now attracting the attention of those that live near him in Columbus. That being said, he does wonder what takes place once the gas and oil industries complete the development of pipelines, well pads, compressor stations, and frackinators.

“I am happy that some businesses are utilizing some of that office space downtown now, and the music scene is still pretty remarkable,” he said. “The Blues Festival is something that I have heard other musicians in Columbus talk about not knowing I am from the Valley.

“Unfortunately, the frackers are running rampant before any studies or legislation can be put into place. I fear that the day will soon come when they all pull up stakes and leave a scarred valley behind when the harmful effects of fracking finally come out and the government implements rules that they won’t like,” he continued. “I guess I haven’t been around enough to have any run-ins with the fracking workers themselves. The ones I have met seem like OK guys.”

Hackett, too, sees the pros and cons of the gas rush that began throughout the Upper Ohio Valley in 2007 and continues today. Corporations like Rice Energy and Southwestern Energy continue to harvest from the Marcellus and Utica shale plays, and public opinion remains divided in the Northern Panhandle and East Ohio region.

Cortney Lynn Hackett
Cortney Lynn Hackett

“Mostly, I see growth and progress,” she said. “The oil and gas industry led to both positives and negatives for Wheeling. On the positive side, the population increase has stimulated the growth of the economy and contributed via taxes to community improvements. It finally appears as though Wheeling is really starting to make some progress in terms of community involvement and development. Prior to my move to Florida, suggestions for change were met with opposition from city leaders who were more concerned with how advancements would benefit them.

“Now, however, the younger members of the population who choose to reside in Wheeling seem to have made a commitment to improving the city and are actively taking steps to follow through for the betterment of the community,” Hackett continued.  “On the negative side, the oil and gas rush has resulted in an increased crime rate. And after the oil and gas workers depart for someplace else, can Wheeling’s long term population continue to support the expanded economy?”

Returning Home.

I did it, and many others have, too. The decisions are most often about family, quality of life, education, employment, and getting back to what you know best.

For some, it’s not possible, and for many of the same reasons, but that does not stop the thoughts and the wishes to finally come home.

“Over the years, I have considered it many times. I often wonder how my son’s life would have been different had he grown up there instead of in Columbus,” Bowsher said. “I would love to see family and old friends more often. I miss familiar places, favorite restaurants, social activities like steak fries, and the hills.

“My main reason for staying here in Columbus is financial. I have never been without a job in the last 29 years. Salaries for teachers are better here, as well,” she said. “There are many opportunities and amenities available here that are not available in Wheeling. I also would not want to leave my doctors at The Ohio State University James Cancer Hospital. There is such an array of medical resources here that I would not have in Wheeling.

Jamie Stahl Bowsher
Jamie Stahl Bowsher

“I see my dad struggle in Wheeling to find specialists for his health concerns, and I do not want to take that risk. I sometimes entertain the thought of someday retiring there. Wheeling will always be home, even if it’s not where I live right now.”

Mitchell, too, wishes to return home, but the right kind of employment is his carrier.

“I’ve thought about coming back many, many times,” he said. “I do IT work and could do it from anywhere that has a broadband internet connection. If I could get a gig where I could telecommute 100 percent of the time, I’d certainly consider moving home.

“I have seen large companies offshore/outsource jobs to foreign countries. I would love for one to take a chance and on-shore some of those jobs back to Wheeling,” he continued. “I suppose I always fantasize that I could be part of some training program to get the fresh staff up to speed should some Fortune 100 open up an IT security shop in Wheeling.”

Moving home some day is not out of the question for Hamilton, and staying close to her hometown was imperative when she and her husband were choosing where to reside after each of them completed master’s degrees.

“He likes to joke that I gave him a choice of any city that was within a three-hour drive to Wheeling,” she said. “I really wanted to be a drivable distance so that I could get home for babies, sicknesses, or whatever. His family lives in Aurora, which is a suburb of Cleveland. I figured I’d rather have been close to his family than no family at all, so we chose Cleveland. Where we live in Geauga County has a lot of the rural feel that I love and has similar mid-western values and kind people.”

Twila Fusco Raper
Twila Fusco Raper

Twila Fusco Raper, a 46-year-old teacher, did move home despite living and working in the Baltimore area since 1991. Her vacations and long weekends were spent in Wheeling, and her long-distance phone bills were costly.

Today, though, the 1991 graduate of West Liberty University teaches for Ohio County Schools, lives on Wheeling Island, and adores her decision to return to the Friendly City when she realized she had the chance.

“I truthfully thank God I was given the chance to come back home. A life- changing event happened in my Baltimore City High School special ed classroom that made me take the next day off, and I told my husband that we were taking a long weekend and I was going to get on the sub list and work at the mall part-time if I had to,” she explained. “I told him I was done with Baltimore at the end of that school year and we were going home. I was offered a job in Ohio County schools in January.

“I see a pride being taken back in our city that was lost,” Raper continued. “It doesn’t matter what section of Wheeling you are from; people are working together to make it better. New businesses are opening bringing in revenue and more importantly life to a once dying city.”

Heritage Port
Heritage Port