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Bright future?

Editor's note: Declining population. Budget woes. A disappearing downtown. Clarksburg isn't alone in its struggles to remain viable in a changing economy. In a four-part series, staff writer Shawn Gainer looks at some of the problems the city faces, as well as some of the positive changes already occurring.

by Shawn Gainer

STAFF WRITER

CLARKSBURG -- Some would call 215-year-old Clarksburg a dying city.

They don't have to go far for ammunition.

The city's population has dwindled about 40 percent, from approximately 30,000 in 1960 to about 18,059 in the last U.S. Census Bureau report in 1990.

When the 2000 Census comes out, it could be even worse: The city has lost most of a once thriving industrial and mining job base.

However, others say the city is on the verge of a comeback.

They point to road access, Benedum Airport and access to higher education.

Either way, it's clear this is a pivotal time for Clarksburg. The city could either retain its status as a regional center or become a provincial backwater.

Positive Changes

Clarksburg has seen positive developments in recent years. The expansion of Benedum Airport, coupled with the city's location at the intersection of Interstate 79 and U.S. 50, gives Clarksburg important advantages in transportation infrastructure. Transportation access and access to higher education are key ingredients to economic growth, according to Dr. George Hammond, a research assistant professor with the West Virginia Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

Also, the relocation of the FBI Criminal Justice Information Services Center to Clarksburg's jurisdiction brought many federal jobs to the area, though job growth from the center has leveled off, Hammond said.

Benedum Airport in nearby Bridgeport has attracted high wage, high skill jobs such as turbine engine technician positions at the Pratt & Whitney Aircraft Services, Inc. engine repair facility. While employers at the airport have had to import some workers for technical positions, the Harrison County school system and Fairmont State College have implemented many certification and training programs aimed at bringing residents' skills in line with the needs of high-tech employers.

Other area developments include the High Technology Consortium Foundation at Fairmont and plans for a $750 million self-contained community called Charles Pointe near Bridgeport. While Charles Pointe will have its own shopping, entertainment and outdoor recreation facilities, plans call for the community to be brought into Bridgeport's jurisdiction in segments.

Will any of these regional developments benefit Clarksburg? City Manager Tom Vidovich said he thinks they will. For example, Vidovich said he thinks they could increase property values in the city.

"What's good for Clarksburg is good for the region and vice versa," Vidovich said.

Problems

Positive developments in the city are balanced by serious problems with dilapidated housing, aging infrastructure and government expenses that stretch the limits of stagnant revenue. In an effort to address the housing problem, the city has begun a rental inspection program and council has applied for grants to pay for the demolition of dilapidated properties.

The city has also launched the Neighborhood 2000 program with the goal of bringing together government and residents' efforts to deal with blight and to spur renovation in neighborhoods.

In the area of city finances, the city has switched from a costly self-funded insurance program to the Public Employees Insurance Agency municipal pool in an effort to deal with runaway prescription costs. City Personnel Director Jimmy Marino said the city will not realize savings from the switch until next year because of bills that have carried over from the self-funded program.

Also, city Finance Director Frank Ferrari has made numerous recommendations for dealing with a tight budget, including several cost cutting measures and raising annual service fees. Since 1995, all Business and Occupation Tax rates in the city have been at the maximum allowed by state law.

Whether city officials will eventually have to choose between fee increases or cutting services and some of its approximately 200 municipal employees, is unclear and will likely depend on future revenue.

"We should do everything possible before we do something to our citizens," Councilman Sam "Zeke" Lopez said.

Downtown

In October, the closings of two downtown businesses were announced: a Rite Aid Pharmacy and the Clarksburg Movie Cafe. Some city officials have downplayed the closings as part of the normal business cycle, while others have expressed deep concern about the downtown business climate.

Work on a Main Street revitalization program will begin next year. Mainly using grant money, city officials plan to construct decorative sidewalks and install period lighting on West Main Street between Third and Fourth streets. Also, Vidovich said he hopes there will be enough money to place utility and cable lines underground. He added that the intent of the project is to make downtown more attractive to businesses and consumers.

The first phase of a similar project in the Glen Elk neighborhood has also been completed. Pat Ford, a Bridgeport engineering and planning consultant who advises cities on how to compete with malls and large retailers such as Wal-Mart, said the project has benefited the city.

"They're building a niche market based on Italian Heritage," Ford said. "It's out of the way, but people go there for the high quality of goods and services."

Future?

Whether Clarksburg will continue to be a dying city or have a turnabout and retain its status as a regional center is open to speculation. Thus far, Bridgeport, with a per-capita income nearly twice that of Clarksburg, appears to have been the primary beneficiary of technology-based growth along the I-79 corridor.

However, some residents and officials believe Clarksburg is in a good position for growth.

"Admittedly, we have not attracted smokestack industries like we had before, but we have attracted light industry and services," Vidovich said, citing Infocision and Merrick Corporation as examples.

Vidovich also believes the completion of Corridor H will help the city remain a regional center.

"I think Clarksburg will continue to be the commercial hub of the area," he said.

Staff Writer Shawn Gainer can be reached at 626-1442 or by e-mail at sgainer@exponent-telegram.com.

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