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Steve Novotney Says, "2017 - Cracking a New Economy?"

The death of the steel industry in the Upper Ohio Valley was a slow but sure one thanks to free trade agreements, cheaper products flooding the global markets, environmental regulations, and strained relationships between the workforce and the company owners.

Goodness, even the Federal Building in downtown Wheeling was expanded in the mid-1990s with Chinese steel and not with products from Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel despite the fact the company's headquarters once rested across a thin alley from the construction site.

The history of this region's steel industry also was bruised by bankruptcies and work stoppages, and the day RG Steel filed for federal protections from creditors in 2001, the few employees that were left simply walked out and walked away.

It was over, and not only here but also at Sparrows Point in Baltimore, and in Warren, Ohio. The mills fell silent at first, but then they were dismantled, and the land was sold.

The same has taken place in Belmont County but not with a former steel mill. In the Dilles Bottom area First Energy brought down its 854-foot stack and cleared the land where the Burger Power Plant once operated. For many years it was powered by coal, but in an attempt to survive, the facility's life pellets were used to churn out the electricity. That phase was short-lived, though, and the company opted out.

First Energy, however, wiped away its footprint near Shadyside because of an agreement with PTT Global, a petrochemical company owned and operated out of Thailand, because that acreage and more could be covered with what is known as a "cracker" plant. Such a facility takes in natural gas harvested in this area and separates the odorless substance into several byproducts for various uses including the manufacturing of plastics.

What PTT has investigated for more than a year now, spending at least $100 million along the way, is the purchase of nearly 600 acres for the development of the plant that has an estimated price tag of more than $5 billion. Company officials have stated the construction phase would employ as many as 5,000 people on a temporary basis and at least 1,000 full-time employees once the "cracker" is operational.

If the project moves forward in Belmont County the new industry will not immediately supply the same amount of jobs the steel mills once did, but the potential for continued growth is something to study, and that is why Wheeling Mayor Glenn Elliott created a committee to discuss what such a development could mean for the folks of the Friendly City. That's because, in other areas of the United States in which such plants have opened, a plethora of ancillary operations have followed, and with the "cracker" currently under construction in Monaca, Pa., one is left to wonder what else could be developed along the 72 river miles from there to Dilles Bottom.

Initially it was believed the people of the Upper Ohio Valley would know something solid from PTT officials by the end of this year, but, according to Belmont County Commissioner Mark Thomas, the decision will be made during the first fiscal quarter of next year. If their answer is a "NO," the site will remain available for the next proposal, but if it's a, "YES," it would be the largest-ever economic development in the entire state of Ohio.

That's right! Bigger than anything in Toledo, Columbus, Cleveland, or Cincinnati, and the timing would be absolutely perfect for the people in this valley region because the "What's Next?" question has been left unanswered for far too long a time, and this area's population has dwindled because of lost hope for an improving economy. The city of Wheeling is a prime example because not since the 1880s have fewer than 30,000 people lived here, but that's the case today.

For most of 2016 the "cracker" proposal has been referred to as a "game-changer" by many throughout the Upper Ohio Valley, and that's because it would be one. And, as is the case with any sort of industrial development, there are positives and negatives, but since living-wage employment is a primary issue in this region, many are praying to hear a "Yes" from PTT Global officials in the near future.