WHEELING - Creating a business-friendly climate in the Ohio Valley is as much about changing the perception as changing the rules, according to local leaders.
"West Virginia is a much better state than it was, but we can get better," Wheeling Mayor Andy McKenzie said. "It's changing our reputation. It's going to be a generational thing."
The state of West Virginia finds itself traveling a road where more autonomy for cities is being recognized as a need through the home rule program. However,state leaders in Charleston are reluctant to give away too much power and still attempt to set wide-ranging policies that may work in Charleston but don't make sense for border cities such as Wheeling or Weirton.
McKenzie did cite the continued expansion of home rule in West Virginia as a big plus in helping the state change that perspective. Different regions have different priorities, he said, which often makes large-scale change at the state level difficult - a problem that's less prevalent at the local level.
"It's a lot easier to shift a small boat in the ocean than it is the Titanic," McKenzie said.
But there are things state government can do to help. One McKenzie would like to see is eliminating the business personal property tax, which he said often leads businesses to open offices in neighboring states rather than West Virginia.
"That's a very archaic tax that needs to go away," McKenzie, a former 12-year member of the West Virginia Senate, said.
Wheeling often gets negative attention for the disappearance of retail from its downtown. But according to Vice Mayor Eugene Fahey, what most people don't realize is that retail has instead spread throughout town.
Neighborhoods such as Elm Grove and Woodsdale are seeing much more business activity than in generations past, and the city is coming off a record year for business and occupation tax collection.
"What we're finding is that we have more business in the city of Wheeling than we did last year. So it is improving. ... Every community has blended residential and commercial," Fahey said. "Fifty years ago, that didn't exist."
Wheeling has been fortunate, McKenzie believes, to have a much more diverse economy than many other local communities. When traditional employers in the steel and coal industries began to cut jobs, employment in the city shifted to health care, education and other fields.
"We still have a coal mentality in West Virginia," McKenzie said. "Now that coal is struggling, we need to change the state of West Virginia."
In Weirton, Mayor George J. Kondik delivered an optimistic state of the city address earlier this month, offering an overview of what city officials will be working to develop this year.
"... The city of Weirton is part of the HUB Community Achievement program, which is investing in our community for projects at various locations. I will be soliciting them for a $13,000 grant to be given to the local redevelopment authority to put toward the Jimmy Carey Stadium. That's one project that we will be doing, and it will be done this year," Kondik said/
"We're looking at APEX Oil with their $6 million renovation," he said. "The $6 million sewer project is being financed by a local bank, which is huge to us. We're going to use tax increment money to build an almost $1 million infrastructure road for a $7.1 million facility which is going to create 50 jobs to start at $30,000 a year and about 110 more jobs to follow within the year after that."
"We've got the Three Springs Park business development and the property that's across from Walmart," he said. "We have developers there that want to add another hotel and another retail outlet, and we're going to use over $900,000 of TIF money there for infrastructure for office space and retail outlets. We've talked to the four land owners from Colliers Way to Three Springs Drive to let us do a feasibility study for an access road. That would be tremendous for us."