Connecting state and local government leaders
How do cities like Wheeling, which thrived under different circumstances, find their place in a complex global economy and attract needed investment?
So I’m not actually in Wheeling, West Virginia, at the moment. This photo of the approach to the historic, 167-year-old Wheeling Suspension Bridge over the Ohio River is from a foggy morning in August 2015 that gave way to sunny skies. My visit to Wheeling was supposed to be part of my Route Fifty City-County Summer Roadtrip, but I didn’t get around to finishing it. (Sorry.)
I’ll get back to Wheeling in a moment ...
Since the Route Fifty team is on the road quite a bit, we thought it’d be fun to share more snapshots from our travels. These check-ins from the road may not necessarily lead to fully built-out stories—although some certainly will. What can start as a simple observation can sometimes evolve into a great story. And sometimes, the simple observation can stand on its own and tell an important story about a particular place.
We have a lot of big travel plans through the end of the year!
Editor-at-Large Timothy B. Clark will be traveling around New England this summer from his base in Maine. (He also traveled to Nogales, Arizona, recently to report from the U.S.-Mexico border.)
I’ll be bouncing around all over the place in the next few months, including trips to Boston, Denver, Kansas City, Southern California, the San Francisco Bay Area, Portland, Oregon. And who knows where else or team will end up . . .
Stay tuned in September for my dispatches from a planned transcontinental roadtrip via Pittsburgh, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota and Montana. Route Fifty is setting up a West Coast bureau based in Seattle, too.
So, back to Wheeling, West Virginia ...
There’s a lot of pass-through traffic in West Virginia’s northern panhandle. Travelers heading between the Mid-Atlantic states and the Midwest on Interstate 70 zoom right by downtown Wheeling or bypass it on I-470. Before that, Wheeling was an important stop along the National Road—which crossed the Ohio River on the now ancient suspension bridge—and was the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad’s original western destination.
If you’re ever passing through on I-70 between Pennsylvania and Columbus, Ohio, you should consider making a pitstop to explore the downtown area, which boasts some impressive commercial architecture. South of downtown is the Centre Market, which dates to 1853, making it older than West Virginia itself, which didn’t become a state until 1863.
Wheeling, like many Ohio River towns, has been struggling with difficult economic conditions in recent years, especially with the precipitous decline of the local coal and steel industries in the 1980s and 1990s. The shale oil boom boosted economic growth in the surrounding area in recent years, and in 2014, it helped the Wheeling metropolitan area record the nation’s fifth-best economic growth rate.
Time will tell just how much Wheeling, and so many other local jurisdictions in shale oil regions, will be hurting with the major shifts going on right now in the global energy sector.
Beyond shale oil, coal, which has powered West Virginia’s economy for generations, is no longer king. While some want to fight to retain what’s left of the coal mining industry and ideally see the energy extraction sector’s revitalization, it’s clear it’s not coming back.
In a recent interview with West Virginia Public Broadcasting, state Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler pointed across the border to Pittsburgh’s post-steel economic success story:
We need to redefine ourselves like they have in Pittsburgh where they lost their steel industry and became a research and commerce center, an education Mecca for higher education. We’ve got WVU, Marshall, West Liberty, Wheeling Jesuit, we’re right next to Carnegie Mellon, we’ve got the research corridor in north central West Virginia, we’ve got a growing Eastern Panhandle. And yet to continue to pound the drum that we’ve got to have pick and shovel coal mining in order to bring our economy back is just a terrible fallacy.
Wheeling is a good place to ask the questions of what’s next. How do cities like Wheeling, which thrived under different circumstances, find their place in a complex global economy and attract needed investment? It’s a tough situation and one that doesn’t have simple solutions.
I’ll be taking a closer look at one of the biggest obstacles cities like Wheeling are facing in my next dispatch from 50 miles upriver.
Next Stop: East Liverpool, Ohio
Michael Grass is Executive Editor of Government Executive's Route Fifty.