By Linda Harris, Business Writer for the Weirton Daily Times
Weirton residents say the recent articles are based on stereotypes and don't paint an accurate picture of the town.
Fred Marsh figures he’s no different than most Weirton residents: He has all his teeth. He wears shoes, goes to work every day and sent his kids to college – none of which, he says, sounds at all like the stereotypical, rough-around-the-edges community portrayed in recent New York Times articles.
“Where else in the country could you buy a well-maintained three bedroom, two bath house for $100,000, pay only $1,000 a year in property taxes, and have neighbors who know who you are and watch out for you?” said Marsh, a city councilman. “Where else would someone pull over and offer to help if they see you broken down on the side of the road? We can go to bed at night and leave our doors unlocked. And if something happens while you’re away from home, your neighbors know how to get hold of you. That’s how this town is.”
So far, the New York Times has run two articles: the first, addressing the declining birth rate locally — only 71 babies are born for every 100 people who die — and suggesting the town has “no energy” left for things like parades and street festivals. The second, and perhaps more damaging, of the two articles honed in on the former bus station, now a downtown diner whose denizens include “a salty-tongued go-go dancer-turned-waitress, a recovering heroin addict with no front teeth and a taste for alcohol before noon, and people who grew up watching their blue collar fathers abuse their mothers.”
Marsh and others, in and out of government circles, insist that portrayal is selective, mean-spirited and couldn’t be farther from the truth.
“The thing that irritates me,” local businessman Gus Monezis said, “is that you can go in any town and find the bad. But to paint an accurate picture, you need to see both sides and balance that. She did not do that.”
Monezis said he talked to reporter Sabrina Tavernise in person though, he takes pains to point out, you wouldn’t know it from the story that was filed.
“This is a very nice business. We’re very successful,” he said. “We’re doing well, but she didn’t want to hear that. I could tell when I spoke with her she didn’t want to hear that. Look, we all know that the mill is (shrinking). It didn’t happen overnight. We know it, but we don’t feel (like it’s the end of the world). There are a lot of good people here, there’s a lot of substance, there’s a lot of pride here. … I told her about the $50 million levy we just passed to improve our elementary schools and build a stadium, and about the $1.5 million we just spent on updates at our Community Center, a facility like no one else up and down the river has. She didn’t want to see that, I could tell. She didn’t want to hear about that part of Weirton. None of that interested her.”
J.J. Bernabei, a Weirton resident and owner of a flourishing health care business in the Tri-State area, said he “shouldn’t have to defend where I live to someone at the New York Times.”
“We’re close enough to the metropolitan area that people can still live here and commute to work,” he said. “People want to live here because our communities are safe and our schools are safe. That’s something you can’t find everywhere. … By no means have I traveled all over the world, but I’ve been to enough places to know that’s not common.”
Pat Ford, executive director of the local business development group, said it’s hard to “get an accurate picture of a community” from a visit to just one diner.
“I’m sitting in a restaurant in Philadelphia right now, and I see those same people,” he said. “Is that a reflection on all the wonderful things they’re doing in this city? No. Does it reflect what the city of Philadelphia has overcome in the last 50 years? Absolutely not. It’s no different for Weirton.”
Ford suggested it’s a matter of perception. Where outsiders might see a rusting, slow-moving down-on-its-luck community, he sees one that’s turned the corner and is reinventing itself as a place to live, work and do business, pointing to a string of “new business” announcements that are creating jobs and pumping money into the local economy.
“In the past 20 years we have struggled,” Ford said. “We did bottom out, but we’re going through a rebirth right now, a renaissance. People choose to live in West Virginia in general and the Northern Panhandle in particular because of our quality of life, because of our housing values, because of our proximity to major metropolitan areas and the available infrastructure to live here and commute to work in places like Pittsburgh.”
“You know what gets under my skin? We don’t need people in the Northern Panhandle believing what someone from out of town in general, and the New York Times in particular, says we should be thinking about ourselves. What’s important is what our local people and our local leaders believe and do. I’m not saying the diner is a bad place, it’s just another colorful place in the Northern Panhandle where you can meet a friend, have a cup of coffee, reflect on current events and talk sports. It’s the same as it is in diners in Kansas, in Texas or Pennsylvania or New York. That’s Americana. … and I betcha there’s one of those diners around the corner from where she lives, too.”