Rail yard future still a mystery

WEIRTON – A year after asking city officials to subdivide their property, the community still is waiting to hear what ArcelorMittal has in mind for the 800 acres it’s trying to sell.

Keith Nagel of Tecumseh Redevelopment, ArcelorMittal’s real estate arm, had told city officials in March 2012 that subdividing “sets us up to transact the properties we no longer need for our business.”

Though he declined to say who was lurking in the wings, he did tease that it “will be exciting news” for a community hungry for jobs and revenue.

But that was 2012.

Now, a full year later, the potential buyer is still behind the curtain: Those privy to the behind-the-scenes deal-making aren’t talking, at least not publicly. Nagel did not return calls to his office this week.

Out in the community, however, speculation runs rampant: One of the most talked about scenarios involves a Maryland-based company said to already have at least some of the property under contract for a manufacturing venture, with financing involving an international investment group spotted in the city a few months back. How accurate the community conversation is remains to be seen.

“I don’t know what deals they’re looking for, but they need to find someone with money,” suggests a still-optimistic Gus Monezis, owner of Gus’s Goodies and champion of the downtown business community.

Monezis says the land on Arcelor’s excess property list is, arguably, among the most valuable in the area, with high value attributes like river, rail and interstate access guaranteeing that, sooner or later, someone with a solid business plan and a fat wallet will close the deal.

“The most important thing is to get a deal, that’s the key,” Monezis said. “They’re working on it, it’s not like it’s being neglected. There’s still hope.”

Mark Glyptis, president of United Steelworkers union Local 2911 in Weirton, said he’s confident that, sooner or later, the sale will go through. Glyptis serves on the committee organized five years ago to facilitate the property’s resale, so he knows more than he can – or will – say about Arcelor’s redevelopment efforts. He did say, however, the negotiations are at a “critical” point.

“I believe the land, ultimately, is going to provide family-sustaining jobs, development that’s going to occur over a period of time,” he said. “Of course, I’ve been saying that for quite a while. But it takes time, it takes decades, for land such as what you can find here to be redeveloped.”

He said it took more than 30 years for a mall to develop in Homestead, Pa., after U.S. Steel closed its mill there, “and (retail) isn’t what we’re doing here, we’re looking at significant development here. I believe because of the land, it will happen.”

But not everybody’s that patient.

U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., makes it clear he wants to see a deal. In a statement e-mailed to the Herald-Star and The Weirton Daily Times, Rockefeller said for the last six years he’s been working with “community stakeholders, business leaders and economic development officials on ways to bring new jobs to this community.”

“Smart use of vacant ArcelorMittal property, which I believe is ripe for opportunity, is a key piece of that effort,” wrote Rockefeller, who will leave office in 2014 after five terms in the Senate and a 50-year career in public service. “It’s imperative, in fact, because it represents an urgent community need. The people of Weirton have waited a long time and deserve to see progress. I pressed ArcelorMittal just last month on its site redevelopment plans, and I remain totally focused on Weirton’s future – for people whose jobs and futures depend on it.”

Pat Ford, executive director of the Business Development Corp. of the Northern Panhandle, admits he’s frustrated that he can’t deal the property to prospects even though the land sale is still in flux.

When prospects tour Weirton, Ford said they invariably point to prime properties like the rail yard, the old R&D building on Three Springs Drive and the Finished Products Warehouse in Half Moon Industrial Park, “and our answer is, it’s under contract.”

“We’ve been saying ‘it’s under contract’ for years, and it does get frustrating at times,” Ford said, adding the Upper Ohio Valley “has everything an industry could need, and we’re making wonderful things happen with the inventory we have available.”

“But I can’t imagine the success stories we’d have if even half of those properties had been accessible to the prospects,” Ford added. “We understand real estate deals take time – some of the deals we’re working on now have been germinating over one and a half years and, other than Beech Bottom, we don’t have anything near the 800 acres they’re negotiating. We do understand the confidential nature of negotiations and the due diligence that has to be done.”

Much as he’d like to see a deal already struck, Mayor George Kondik said changes of the magnitude Weirton is banking on don’t happen overnight.

“My understanding is the process is taking longer than normal,” said Kondik. “It’s been a year. Can we afford to wait another 30 or 60 days if we have to? Sure, because the benefits will be tremendous.”

Monezis said what the community needs is “somebody to come in with money, not somebody coming in looking for money.”

“I know something needs to be done, it has to be done,” adds downtown business owner John Newbrough. “The property is too valuable to be sitting there. With all the oil and gas around us, someone has to want it. We need (them) to be more aggressive in getting it sold.”

Glyptis, though, pointed out economic development is a painstaking process.

“There has to be a tear-down before there’s a rebuilding,” he said, adding that while he understands the frustration, “I truly believe this is going to be a growth area, one of the biggest growth areas in America.”

“I think once people see the plan, the whole plan, I think they’ll feel good, they’ll feel like this can truly be a growth area,” he added. “Many of us were part of the heyday of steel industry, we were here when the steel mills were running at full capacity, and we’ve seen the decline of industry. It would be great to see the rebirth of this valley and this region.”