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Northern Panhandle leaders take issue with negative portrayal in national press

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Local officials say they have a word for outsiders who portray the Northern Panhandle as being in free-fall: Wrong.

The Huffington Post recently pegged the Steubenville-Weirton metropolitan area as one of the 10 fastest shrinking in America, while Mother Jones depicted Weirton as “the dark side of the moon.”

Both articles point to the demise of West Virginia's steel industry as catapulting the community and its people into a downward spiral of decay and despair.

Local leaders, however, say the authors of both articles are so intent on telling America how much the Northern Panhandle was hurt by downsizing in the steel industry over the past four decades that that they've overlooked the new jobs, investments and industries that are coming to West Virginia and the Northern Panhandle.

*The Huffington Post article points to declines in population over the past 53 years, how in 2012 senior citizens accounted for 19 percent of the metro area's population and the median age was 43.8-years-old, and over the past three years deaths outnumbered births by more than 1,800.

*The Mother Jones article, meanwhile, portrays Weirton as an ugly town bereft of hope and opportunity. Author Peter Van Buren wrote how “... the abandoned steel mills appear like a vision of an industrial apocalypse, nestled by the Ohio River...” and how “the carcass of the huge steel complex sits at one end of Main Street, rusting and overgrown with weeds because it wasn't even cost-effective to tear it down. Dinosaur-sized pieces of machinery litter the grounds, not worth selling off, too heavy to move, too bulky to bury, like so many artifacts from a lost civilization. A few people do still work nearby, making a small amount of some specialty metal, but the place seems more like a living museum than a business.”

Pat Ford, executive director of the Business Development Corporation of the Northern Panhandle, said unemployment numbers, construction jobs and corporate spending all point to an economic resurgence for the Weirton area.

“These statistics paint the real picture of Weirton,” he said. “Our business community provides a range of goods and services, including ethnic restaurants, professional services, shopping centers and accommodations. Our industrial and manufacturing community includes value-added steel production, warehouse and distribution, manufacturing, transportation logistics and a variety of industries related to the oil and gas industry. These services and employment generators are only made possible by a loyal, dependable and community-minded residential population that works here, shops locally and provides steadfast support for many of our locally-owned businesses.”

Ford said there's been significant corporate development in Weirton over the past three years, including:

*A $1.5 million investment when ITW Fleetwood/Signode moved its operations in Canada, Pennsylvania and Wellsburg to Weirton, preserving 35 jobs and adding 30 more.

*Center Point Terminal spent $6 million in 2012 to upgrade its Weirton terminal to support crude oil gathering operations, adding 10 new jobs to their already strong workforce.

*rue21 underwent an $8.1 million, 180,000 square foot expansion at its Weirton distribution center in 2012, preserving 80 jobs and creating 90 more. In 2013, the retailer also added an E-commerce division, leading to 40 more jobs.

*Starvaggi Industries spent more than a million dollars in 2013 to expand its river terminal and upgrade its ready-mix concrete operations, allowing them to add seven new jobs.

Ford said the business community, including hotels, restaurants, professional services, retailers and industry, has invested roughly $25 million in upgrades or expansions since 2009, creating more than 500 new jobs. He also pointed out industries in Half Moon Industrial Park, one of two in the city, “account for a solid $142 million in assessed value.”

He also pointed out that Government and Public Real Estate News reported the largest percentage gains in construction employment in metro areas throughout the U.S. – 31 percent and 500 jobs – occurred in the Steubenville-Weirton market, while the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says overall unemployment rates have fallen in the same area over the past year.

“It's a great place to live,” Commissioner Jeff Davis said. “ I wouldn't move anywhere else. Hancock County is a great place to live. My kids got a great education in Hancock County Schools. There are still a lot of people in Hancock County who make a good living and are paid decent wages.”

Davis points out neither publication is “telling us anything we don't already know about steel.”

“But (the mill) still employs 800-1,000 people there, and they're good-paying jobs,” he said. “And young people are still being hired to work there. The steel mill is still a vital part of the Hancock County area, it's just become more diversified.”