Cities and towns all along the Ohio River are pushing to reinvent their economies. And they’re turning to everything from recreation to new industry to do it. Here are three new developments we’re watching from Pennsylvania to West Virginia.
1. Shell’s Ethane Cracker
Shell faced questions this week at local and state hearings over the new petrochemical plant it plans to build northwest of Pittsburgh. Local officials asked the company about air and water pollution from the plant—as well as how noise, light and traffic will impact the surrounding communities.
Some nearby residents are concerned about how all these issues will impact their property values. But for commercial real estate in the region, one expert says Shell is bringing, if not a tidal wave, at least a “rising tide” of development. Dan Adamski, managing director of Jones Lang LaSalle, the real estate firm that represented Shell in purchasing the Beaver County site along the Ohio River, says the company chose this spot for a simple reason. “[It’s] primarily because of what’s underneath us—the Marcellus Shale. They like the location on the Ohio River.”
Shell plans to transport large materials up the Mississippi River—and the Ohio—to build its $4-billion plant, which will turn natural gas into plastic.
“The Ohio River, I think, will benefit from all this,” Adamski says. Shell is reportedly spending $80 million to clean up the site, which until recently, housed a large zinc smelter. “And it would have become a brownfield site, had Shell not gone there.”
Other industries are gearing up too, hoping to ride Shell’s coattails. Anecdotally, Adamski says, he’s heard asking prices are increasing on a regional basis for industrial land with rail and barge access. He says that means other brownfield sites along the river could also be cleaned up. “For better or worse, our brownfield sites are located along rivers because that’s where the previous generation of industry occurred. So [for] a lot of this industry we anticipate coming, the brownfield sites that do exist out there make perfect sense.”
Another upside for the river: According to Adamski, many of the spinoff jobs will include attorneys and new office workers. As with employees feeding the recent tech boom in Pittsburgh, these people want to work and live by the water. “They’re going to that location, and oftentimes, they’re paying a premium. It’s more expensive to develop along the river. Nobody wants to look out their window and see a dirty river.”
Reporting by Julie Grant
2. Whitewater Rafting in Morgantown?
If West Virginia is going to become the “whitewater capital of the world,” as John Lichter thinks it could, it’s about time it got a rafting and kayaking park—similar to the one pictured above on the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. In fact, he’s already got a spot picked out on the Monongahela River (just upstream from the Ohio) in Morgantown.
While much of the riverfront in Morgantown is undeveloped, Lichter and his group have chosen a site just south of the Morgantown Place Hotel, near the hike and bike trail, on the Morgantown Lock and Dam. The idea is to install a gate in the lock and dam system—diverting a portion of the water into a separate channel that would run parallel to the river.
“We’re not creating an amusement park, we’re recreating a natural river,” Lichter says. “It’s an attractive enhancement to the bike trail.”
Lichter originally came to West Virginia to be a raft guide and whitewater racer on the Cheat River. He graduated from West Virginia University and loved the state so much, he made it his home. He says a park like this will give locals the chance to get on the river. “A person could take a break from work [and] they could go out in the morning, go out in the evening. “
He says it could also bring tourists to the area. “In places like Boise, Idaho, it attracts surfers, it attracts people with standup paddle boards—even boogie boards.”
His plan could hinge on a proposal by Rye Development to build hydroelectric power plant on the same lock and dam. Lichter says the whitewater channel would likely have to compete for water with the hydro-plant, but he’s talked with Rye, and the two might be able to coexist.
The rafting park also has to contend with outfall from a nearby wastewater treatment plant. “We’re very confident the water is clean enough—and also confident that by getting on the river, it will help people realize what a resource they have and take care of it.”
Reporting by Anne Li and Julie Grant
3. Industry is Moving Back to Chester, West Virginia
Patrick Ford (pictured on the left, above) believes the upper Ohio Valley is going through an economic rebirth. Exhibit A: The Rocksprings Business Park on the site of the former Taylor Smith and Taylor pottery factory in Chester, West Virginia.
“I never thought I’d see this day,” Ford says, watching construction continue on a new 30,000-square-foot warehouse on a cold December day. He calls the sound of drills “music to my ears.”
Ford is the executive director of the Business Development Corporation of the Northern Panhandle (BDC) in West Virginia. The mission of the private nonprofit is to foster a diverse economy in Brooke and Hancock counties. It’s his job to attract big business and revitalize industry in the Ohio Valley.
One of the major challenges he faces is securing the flat land that lines the Ohio River Valley. Ford says it’s filled with abandoned, contaminated former industrial sites. The Taylor factory sat empty and decaying for decades before BDC acquired it in 2012. Ford says it took coordinating public, private, local, state and federal partners to navigate a path that led to demolition, remediation—and today—construction of the new industrial park at the site along the Ohio River.
To get to this point, BDC first had to demolish and remove the dilapidated remnants of the 80,000-square-foot factory, which was laced with asbestos and lead. Then, the soil itself, which was also contaminated with toxic chemicals, had to be trucked away. Finally, the river had to be dredged for pottery shards, since—for decades—factory employees threw all the broken, lead-leaching pottery over the bank into the river.
Only then could phase one of construction begin. It took five years and $3 million from 14 different funding sources. “That ought to tell you why so many of these [industrial sites] sit empty,” Ford says.
With a model now in place to remediate these sites, Ford says momentum is building—and a handful of other developments downriver are already under construction. “There are shovels in the ground in Chester, Weirton, Wellsburg and Beech Bottom.”
Reporting by Glynis Board
###This story is part of our Headwaters series, which explores the environmental and economic importance of the Ohio River. Headwaters is funded by the Benedum Foundation and the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds, and is produced in collaboration with West Virginia Public Broadcasting.