Weirton’s work ethic defines its heritage

WEIRTON — A hundred years ago, immigrants flocked to the community where jobs — and money — were so plentiful, carving out a life for themselves and their families that would make the city of Weirton an ethnic melting pot and continue for generations.

African-American, Russian, Croatian, German, Greek, Irish, Italian, Middle Eastern, Chinese, Polish and Ukrainian are just some of the heritages that have called Weirton home since the early 20th Century, building a life and a community.

Much of the immigration to Weirton — and the rest of the Upper Ohio Valley — was a result of the growing steel industry. Weirton Steel was among those large employers providing a livelihood for immigrants of all kinds and backgrounds, as well as becoming the main focus of the local economy and primary source of community support.

That was a time, no so long ago, that Weirton Steel had more than 13,000 employees.

Then, as the steel industry began to wane and population began to decrease, the region experienced its own economic turmoil.

But the heart and soul — the mixture of cultural backgrounds and values, spurring residents to work hard and build a life for themselves and their families — has remained.

Weirton is in a state of transition, with efforts to attract new business a focus of many, while existing businesses and organizations have had to find new ways to survive.

It is that same heart and sense of survival that Patrick Ford, executive director of the Business Development Corp. of the Northern Panhandle, refers to when describing the spirit of the area as being forged by steel, being broken down, reshaped and transformed for the future.

While the footprint of the former Weirton Steel, now owned by ArcelorMittal, has decreased, and other companies have departed the area in recent years, Ford notes there has been growth.

“The forging has created a new Panhandle,” Ford said. “We are surrounded by opportunities.”

Many of those opportunities are being created locally, Ford noted, including development at the Villages at Colliers Way, constructed by Altair Development, which is home to a variety of retail, restaurants and health-related businesses.

Other growth has been seen at the Three Springs Crossing business center on Three Springs Drive. The property, which once housed Wal-Mart, now is home to cellular retail outlets, restaurants, fitness centers, medical offices, and a nail salon, with more to come.

The Three Springs Business Park has seen growth of its own, too, with expansion of rue21’s warehouse and distribution center, and a new facility for Barney’s Bakery relocating the local business from another area of the city.

That helped to lead to the 2017 groundbreaking for Pietro Fiorentini’s new operation, its first in the United States, which is set to be open this year. The facility sits on 26.4 acres of the business park, and will employ more than 100 area residents.

Bidell Gas Compression, a Canadian firm which renovates and fabricates compressor units for the natural gas industry, began its operations in October 2017 in the city’s north end.

In 2018, more development opportunities were announced with the awarding of a federal grant to support a long-planned retail and light industry project in the Three Springs Business Park.

Mayor Harold Miller said much of these rebuilding efforts take cooperation among a variety of local and state organizations and governmental entities.

“It took a lot of effort,” Miller said. “Together, everyone pulled their weight.”

Even with the changes, Weirton continues to celebrate its history and culture, with summer concerts at the Weirton Event Center, local theatrical productions by Striplight Theatre, the opening of the Summit Art Gallery where the works of local artists are put on display throughout the year, and the creation of heritage events such as the Festival of Nations and the Gate 5 Industrial Art Festival.

It is that mixture of heritage, the work ethic created over generations, that many see as the key to the future of this former steel town.