The fourth largest city in the state of West Virginia, historic Parkersburg is located where the Ohio and Little Kanawha rivers meet. The city was once a railroad terminus and a key location for goods to be transported via steamboat about fourteen miles north to Marietta, Ohio.
Scenic and rich in history, Parkersburg is a city maintaining traditions of the past, while focusing on visions of future growth and development.
The city of Parkersburg was incorporated in 1810 and renamed from Newport to Parkersburg. Originally, it was largely settled by land grants issued to American Revolutionary War veterans for their service. The railroad once terminated in Parkersburg, and goods were unloaded and transported by ferry across the river. This transport of goods was initially the impetus for the development of the area.
However, Mayor James E. Colombo — who prefers to go by Jimmy — says it is vital to keep looking forward, not back, when it comes to projects that improve quality of life for local residents and bring new residents and businesses to the city of Parkersburg. Along with others, including Development Director Rickie Yeager, he is doing just that.
“I never look for the finish line,” says Colombo, who was instrumental in initiating twenty-three projects during his previous seven-year term as mayor and successfully seeing most of them completed. Colombo replaced Mayor Bob Newell, who resigned, in June and will serve for the next year and a half.
“At the end of my eighteen months, it’s not going to be a finish line; it’s going to be a starting line for someone else. We’re going to keep things moving, to keep us online, to make this a better city, a place where people like living here, to clean it up more. Those are my goals. I never have a finish line, nor do I like to say I have a rear view mirror. If something fails, we continue with something else. It’s one of those things… We wind ourselves up and roll.”
Among the city’s major developments is its riverfront project, including improvements to Point Park. “Our waterfront was a working industrial waterfront at one time,” says Yeager, the city’s development director for the past year and a half. He is also a former Parkersburg city planner and a certified planner with American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP).
“It is transitioning. In the 1950s, we constructed a floodwall along around downtown Parkersburg and the Ohio River side, so that kind of cut us off from our riverfront for flood protection. But we are now – under Mayor Colombo’s leadership and former Mayor Newell – completing the construction or redevelopment of the riverfront park for about $12 million.”
The improvements to Point Park were planned in 1992, and were a collaborative effort among a number of entities including the State of West Virginia, US Army Corps of Engineers and the City of Parkersburg. Federal government funding was secured through a $3 million grant from the State of West Virginia from Excess Lottery Revenue Bonds, the Corps of Engineers and from a Section 108 loan. The loan was administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and secured with the City of Parkersburg’s Community Development Block Grant entitlement funds.
Among the many improvements to the park were expanded landing areas for boats, additional lighting and parking, an 800-seat amphitheater for concerts, new restrooms and a large expansion to hiking and biking trails. The difference was significant. Prior to the improvements, the area was essentially used as a place to people to fish and as a landing area for small boats to go back and forth to the state park. At the same time, other developments have included the replacement of sidewalks with brick paving and working with downtown boards on different ways to enhance the area.
Among Parkersburg’s other initiatives are two major streetscape improvement projects. The city, using grants from the State of West Virginia’s Transportation Enhancement Assistance Program, has added benches, decorative sidewalks and crosswalks, attractive lighting and trees.
Parkersburg has invested over $1 million resurfacing, repairing and adding drainage to streets. Moreover, with the Downtown On-Trac Program, developed by the West Virginia Development Office and the Downtown Development Task Force, Parkersburg is revitalizing its city center. The partnership aims ‘to undertake the implementation of this program in an effort to further grow and revitalize the downtown while preserving its character.’ These programs and many others aimed at enhancing and maintaining tourism and the arts are helping Parkersburg as it moves towards the future.
Another recent improvement grew out of the city’s Downtown Development Task Force. Some years ago, the task force realized skateboarding was becoming a serious issue to property. Rather than remove the skateboarders, members – particularly one person on the board who was a passionate former skateboarder – determined that it made more sense to accommodate them. The Parkersburg Skateplaza Foundation and a committee from the task force raised over $300,000 in just eighteen months.
“Working with this group and the city, we were able to raise about $300,000 to build a 10,000 square foot skateboard park,” says Yeager. Called the Fort Neal Skate Park, the highly-rated outdoor concrete park is a skateboarders’ dream and free to use. Constructed by Grindline of Seattle, Washington, the skate park has become an extremely popular attraction for Parkersburg. “Previously, the area wasn’t being used at all,” comments Yeager. “It was a good use of the property.”
With an eye on improving Parkersburg for locals and new residents, the city is also focused on attracting and retaining businesses in the area. It was historically known as a centre for industries such as chemical and glass manufacturing and several well-known companies have called Parkersburg home including DuPont, Union Carbide and General Electric Plastics.
“We have transitioned from historically a manufacturing-based economy to one that is more diversified,” says Yeager. “Government, healthcare, education – those are our big wheel houses, including some chemical-based industries that are still here, like Dupont.”
Conducting a study to determine the nature of businesses the area could attract, it was found that Parkersburg, as a petrochemical cluster, would be very competitive with other nearby communities. Just fifteen to twenty miles north of the city, there is significant oil and gas development which is making its way towards Parkersburg. This has resulted in an increase in the number of hotels and motels being built and then completely rented by the oil and gas industry.
The city has received approximately $500,000 in grant funding from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state agencies to assist with environmental assessment and creating an inventory of brownfield sites and industrial areas for future redevelopment.
For a number of years, women’s clothing retailer Coldwater Creek was located in Parkersburg. It closed its doors last year and the city hopes to repurpose its former state-of-the-art building. The massive million-square-foot facility, located near Mineral Wells, is being viewed by a few interested parties and the city is hopeful that the space will see another retail distribution company or a dot-com take over the premises.
One key project for Parkersburg was initiated in November 2013, when officials from Odebrecht – a Brazilian-based conglomerate active in petrochemicals, construction, chemicals and engineering – announced plans for the development of an ethane cracker plant on a site in West Virginia’s Wood County. For the community, the purchase of the land will see the development of the ASCENT Project – the Appalachian Shale Cracker Enterprise LLC – on the site of the former SABIC Innovative Plastics plant. When underway, Ascent is expected to include three polyethylene plants, along with water treatment and energy co-generation infrastructure, making it a great economic asset to the area.
“We hope that when the cracker plant comes in, that will be a more stable population once we get to the construction side of it,” says Mayor Colombo. “It would be a wonderful boon for a community.”
An entitlement community, Parkersburg receives federal dollars from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development for community development activities. The city has used some of these funds for job creation programs; it also has a tax abatement program for new businesses that hire employees and retain them for a number of years.
While these considerations and tax incentives are useful, both Colombo and Yeager agree that they are only part of the equation. “What is more attractive to businesses is quality of life, social amenities and infrastructure,” says Yeager.
“Those things are what really help sell a community or entice a business person. If you are the CEO of a company, you have to ask yourself, ‘Do I want to live here?’ And if the answer is no, there is no amount of tax incentives that you give somebody to make them change their mind. That’s why you see people investing so much in social infrastructure, the more intangible things that connect people to amenities.”
With a year and a half remaining in his term, Mayor Colombo realizes that many of the improvement projects he has helped initiate will not be completed under his administration, but that of future mayors of Parkersburg.
To the veteran politician, the scenic area has a special place in his heart. “West Virginia is home, and it is heaven for us,” he says, adding that when he comes back from vacation, ”the nicest thing I ever see is when I cross the Virginia line and see ‘Welcome to West Virginia’.”