WEIRTON - From a ramshackle ranch house to the development of neighborhoods to real estate deals that led to shopping centers, James J. Guida has helped change the face of Weirton during the last 50 years.
And, he shows no signs of slowing down.
"People ask me when I am going to retire," said Guida. "I say, what would I do? Golf? I do not enjoy golf. I enjoy this. I do not know what I would do."
NOT SLOWING DOWN — Real estate broker and developer James J. Guida stands outside his Airport Realty office in Burgettstown. Guida, who was involved in deals and developments that changed the face of Weirton since the 1960s, sold his first property in 1964. -- Paul Giannamore
Guida spoke in his office at Airport Realty in Burgettstown. His original business, J.J. Guida Realty in Weirton, is run by his daughter, Jamie. His brother, Anthony, owns Guida Realty in Steubenville. At age 80, J.J. goes to work every day.
It was 1964 when J.J. Guida had enough of working in the mill. He was cleaning out coal carts in the steel mill when it started snowing.
"I was shoveling snow out and some of it came down the back of my neck. I went home and told Rita (his wife) that I had made my mind up. I'm quitting the mill and I'm going into real estate," he recalled. "She said, 'Are you crazy?'"
Guida had earned a real estate license, but the family had four children and about $800 in savings.
"My wife and my father, they all thought I had cracked up," he said.
Guida was 30 when he sold his first home, which had been listed with Carl Frankovitch Sr.
"Carl had a home that he let me take as my first listing, in the Kings Creek Bowl area. I remember it vividly. It was an older ranch house. It had no kitchen. It had no furnace. I put up $2,000 and sold it for $2,500. I made a $500 commission. I thought I died and went to heaven," Guida said.
He went on to open his first office in the Hardman Building, which was where there's now a parking lot for First Choice America Credit Union.
"The day I opened my office, Walt Lint (a prominent Steubenville Realtor of the day) opened his office in Weirton," Guida said. The two men became close friends.
Guida was 30, but he never looked back. He recalls that his parents taught him that if you genuinely want to do something, you can do it.
From selling homes to putting together big deals that led to big projects, such as the Kmart Plaza, to developing neighborhoods, such as the Palomino Drive area, Guida says he's enjoyed not just the business but all the people he's met and worked with during his career.
He cites a number of mentors, including Frankovitch Sr.
"He was one of the wisest, most knowledgeable people about real estate that I ever met," Guida said. "Mike Starvaggi was a wonderful gentleman."
He remembers when real estate was being scouted by an executive based in Cleveland for the Kresge Corp. for a big new store. The group was looking at property off Pennsylvania Avenue where the new Weirton elementary school complex was just completed.
Guida said he convinced the group that a better location was where the old Weirton airstrip was, off Three Springs Drive. He said while they were touring the site, Starvaggi saw a piece of coal on the ground, picked it up and put it in the trunk of his car.
"That's how he had started, and that never left him," he said.
Guida was young and ambitious when he started and with friends like Carl Frankovitch Sr., Starvaggi and Al Bundy, he learned to become a developer.
"I listened to every word they told me," he said.
Golden Key Acres, developed with the late Barry Dixon of Steubenville, was the first subdivision by J.J. Guida. He developed the Palomino Drive area, with apartments and condos. He developed the area where Gabriel Brothers is today. He ventured into the restaurant business with the popular Happy's on Main Street. Though successful, the restaurateur of the family to this day is brother Dewey, who owns DeeJays, famous for its ribs, on Three Springs Drive.
The real estate business changed over the years to one with fewer local independent Realtors and one with major regional and national chains of real estate offices. Regulations have made the job much tougher, to the point where Guida says he might not have entered the business if he was thinking about it today. Real estate, he said, cannot be ignored, however, employing a large swath of workers, from contractors to carpet installers.
"This economy will never turn around unless we turn real estate around," he said.
But neither age nor a changing business climate has stopped Guida, who has opened in recent years the Airport Realty and the Boomers and Beyond Realty offices. And, he's developing Majestic Pointe at Atlasburg, Pa.
One of the reasons for the move into Pennsylvania is that Guida believed it would be easier to accomplish more development. Weirton, he said, has just a few major landowners and the big acreage being cleared by ArcelorMittal at the old mill.
"Weirton is in an area I call the gooseneck. It's four miles wide. Pennsylvania is 700 miles wide. It's limited, so that's why I am developing Majestic Pointew," he said.
He said to develop in Weirton now often takes having to buy up parcels from multiple owners and demolish existing structures. That, combined with the deaths of many of the major developers in Weirton's past, has, along with the decline of the steel indsutry, added to the difficulties of redeveloping Weirton, he said.
Overall, though, it's people that made 50 years go by quickly.
"It all seems like it was a blur. Sometimes, I can't believe it," Guida said.
The key, he said, is having pride.
"I was taught that whatever you have, you take care of it. You do it the best you possibly can," he said. "When I build something, I want the building to be a standout. And we keep putting back.
"I feel blessed with what we've had. People in this area are so great, so kind," he said.
"You get it back tenfold."