Wellsburg aims to breathe new life into old properties

WELLSBURG – The boarded up windows at the old Brooke Glass property in the south end of town don’t begin to tell the story of what’s happening in the community, Mayor Sue Simonetti says.

Idled more than three decades ago, Simonetti sees the old factory as the centerpiece of a citywide effort to reinvent Wellsburg that started just about the time the old Banner-Fibreboard property in the heart of town was cleaned up and then acquired by Eagle Manufacturing for roughly $1.2 million. The company is currently building a 40,000-square-foot distribution center and a 1,200-square foot office where the paper plant once stood, leaving it with another 60,000 square feet of development potential in reserve.

“Brooke Glass wasn’t our first priority (when we started),” Simonetti says of the 2-acre parcel just a block from city hall. “But it’s become our first priority.”

The property’s ascension up the priority list started with a $5,000 grant from the Benedum Foundation to assess the potential for environmental contaminants on site, calculate the cost to remove them and get public input on how the property should eventually be reused. The assessment grant was followed up with another $5,000 grant through “Project Buzz,” a redevelopment program spearheaded by the West Virginia Redevelopment Collaborative.

The Redevelopment Collaborative is a Northern West Virginia Brownfields Assistance Center project. Because it’s funded by the Benedum Foundation, its services are available statewide.

Once they’re accepted into the program, “Project Buzz” uses a team approach to breathe new life into old industrial properties by helping community leaders draft redevelopment plans tailored to their needs and allows them to tap into the expertise of faculty members at West Virginia University, Alderson-Broaddus, Fairmont State, West Virginia Wesleyan and West Liberty University as well as experts in government and the private sector.

While the initial assessment grant helped them figure out what was on site that needed to be removed, City Manager Mark Henne described the buzz grant as “seed money to keep the ball rolling, to look at how our feature properties can be reused once they’re cleaned up.”

An integral part of the process, Simonetti said, was something they called a “visioning” session, a chance for people with a stake in the matter to talk about their expectations. She said they solicited input from “neighbors, business owners, anybody who was interested” in voicing an opinion about the historically significant property.

Given its proximity to the Yankee Recreational Trail, a lot of the ideas floated at the meeting had a touristy theme: Some suggested a glass museum. Others said they’d like to see a small hotel or possibly something involving boat sales, bike rentals or even an ice cream shop.

“They talked about a little depot for people using the trail, with maybe a restaurant, some restrooms and bike rentals. There’s just a lot of potential.”

But what works at one site isn’t necessarily the answer at another.

“All situations are different,” Simonetti said. “Just like with the Banner-Fibreboard property on Route 2, where we have our industrial base. That’s why it’s important to try to continue to participate, to seek ongoing access to funding so we can continue addressing brownfield sites not only in Wellsburg, but throughout the region. We’ve got to continue to seek funding to attack these issues.”

Carrie Staton, redevelopment collaborative coordinator, said the program’s successes have helped fuel interest in it: The old Taylor, Smith & Taylor pottery in Chester, for instance, illustrates how brownfield sites can be cleaned up and prepared for new owners. A former marble factory in Parksburg is being turned into a public greenspace with recreational amenities. Though it hasn’t been redeveloped yet, “there’s been a lot of community input, a lot of community planning,” she said.

Staton said the communities that come to them aren’t much different than Wellsburg, which had identified the need before coming to them.

“(They) were already thinking that way,” she said. “I think it’s different for every community, but once a project gets started you tend to see broader community buy-in. A lot of people will come out and participate and share their vision. That’s a good indicator for us that we’re hitting the right notes and finding the right people to get involved.”

Simonnetti says even little things, like the removal of the concrete dividers on Route 2, can pay big dividends. “It’s not only better for business, but it’s safer to travel,” she said, pointing out that it’s much easier now for delivery drivers and customers to access businesses along Route 2.

And Henne said the Banner-Fibreboard property’s transition from brownfield to economic driver hasn’t gone unnoticed, either.

“I think that’s what’s neat about it,” he said. “It’s contagious. I had people tell me it would never happen, we’d never get it cleaned up. It’s a brownfield success story – it shows you how a little seed money can stimulate (the process) and get owners to work with you, get a property cleaned up to where someone might be interested in reusing it.”

From a business perspective, “taking an old brownfield property like Banner-Fibreboard and converting it to additional industrial or commercial use is always a good scenario,” said Eagle President and CEO Joe Eddy, adding he appreciates the accolades but there “were several agencies involved in that cleanup, making sure that the property was in a position where we could even consider it with a limited amount of environmental risk.”

“I believe it’s a great model for redevelopment of brownfield properties,” he said. “Projects like ours are important to the economic development of both the local area and the state, not only because they add to the jobs base and tax base, but it gives us the ability to grow and add to other gross state product.”

Henne agreed, saying redevelopment is about building for the future.

“You don’t find many communities the size of Wellsburg with a redevelopment authority,” he said. “I think it shows that we want to have a hand in our future. It’s not going to happen unless we take things into our own hands. We formed the redevelopment authority because we saw the need to work to redevelop the city, to clean up brownfield sites and address issues with dilapidated structures so that when new business, industry and residential opportunities present themselves, we’ll be ready. If you wait until the opportunity is here you’re going to miss it. The idea is to plan ahead.”