City on the Rise

Cooperation, vision, and a new influx of cash - Westover is starting to live up to its motto.

Experience in the ring comes in handy when you take on a town that’s KO’d 17 mayors in two decades. “If you’re going to be a strong leader, you have to be a strong person,” says C. David Johnson, longtime Toughman Contest referee who became mayor of Westover in 2008. “Being around the fight game and fighting myself, being a judge and a referee—that hasn’t hurt any.”

In fact, it seems like it’s helped. Twenty years of turbulence had left Westover with a budget that lagged behind its needs. Equipment was deteriorating, and the backlog of deferred infrastructure maintenance was piling up. Having grown up in Westover in the 1950s and ’60s, Johnson hated to see so much disorder. He served on council from 2000 to 2004 during the turbulence and says the problems were obvious to him.

“When I first became mayor, our council meetings were a joke. People would stand up and argue and fuss and fight, and council would get involved,” he says. “I limited citizen comments to two minutes and we quit the question and answering.” Johnson made a lot of other changes that brought order and focus to all of Westover city government. “I’m fair with everybody, but I’m firm, too,” he says.

This year marks nine steady years for the City on the Rise. “You can look back and see the horror show of instability that suddenly stopped,” says Westover City Attorney Timothy Stranko.

For readers who don’t know, Westover is not the western part of Morgantown. It’s a town in its own right, with its own history and its own population—about 4,140. It has its own police officers and city council and the only full-time mayor in Monongalia County. Some families have lived in Westover for generations. And some newcomers prefer it over Morgantown— like WVU graduate Phil Cole and his wife, Kellie, who chose it for its calm streets and the short walk to Morgantown. “We can be on the interstate in minutes—and the housing is more affordable,” Cole says. That sums up what many see as Westover’s appeal: quiet, convenience, and affordability.

And that depends on stability. “Once you have a stable city government with a vision, it’s remarkable what that can accomplish,” Stranko says. Johnson’s vision for his hometown was of a city that brings in enough money to make a good life for its residents; one that offers a clean, safe, pleasant place to live and gives its residents pride. Working together—Johnson is always quick to credit council and city staff—Westover has gotten itself on the rise for the first time in a while.

Growth By Capture

Turn right off the bridge from Morgantown and follow the road to the left at the onion-domed St. Mary’s Orthodox Catholic Church—this is Holland Avenue, Westover’s historical core. Just behind St. Mary’s, at Holland and Keener, sat an early Westover City Hall. Not far beyond that a street named East then one named West intersect Holland, marking early downtown’s domain. Uphill, to the left, stately, century-old homes with mature trees line a neat street grid; downhill, West Park Avenue overlooks the Monongahela River. Holland continues another half-mile to The Westover Triangle, where Fairmont Road breaks to the left and Holland soon becomes Dunkard Avenue to the right.

Compact early Westover annexed itself into the sprawling town we know today. Among the first additions, in the mid-1940s, was Riverside, lying along the river down Dunkard Avenue and anchored by the handsome Riverside United Methodist Church. The city also annexed several communities in 1947 that had sprung up along the Fairmont Road: Maple Grove, which we can guess was beautifully forested; Morgan Heights, a string of tidy World War II block houses built for workers at DuPont’s nearby Morgantown Ordnance Works; and Fairmor, big enough that it has its own set of numbered streets.

Mid-century Westover was safe, quiet, and neighborly, says lifelong resident Bill McCulla. He’s the owner and funeral director at McCulla Funeral Home on Fairmont Road, which his great grandfather built in 1942. “You didn’t lock your doors in those days. You kind of knew everybody.” Kids rode their bikes on Fairmont Road when he was growing up in the 1950s and ’60s. “There was always that vacant lot where we played football, and we participated in baseball down at WesMon field.” Built at Westover City Park by locals when McCulla was a kid through the sale of $100 bonds to locals, WesMon field now hosts the WesMon Little League. Even as late as the 1970s, McCulla says, when he started working at the funeral home, they didn’t have to call for a police escort for funeral processions. “The policeman would just show up. It was kind of like Mayberry.”

Westover was always a crossroads, if a quiet one for most of its history. Today’s Triangle, at the center of town, was the original meeting of the ways between Fairmont and points south, Granville and points north, and Morgantown to the east (see page 80). Two big changes led to the busy, single-corridor traffic pattern we see today: first, the completion in 1979 of Interstate 79 to Charleston, with its Exit 152 interchange on Westover’s west side, at Fairmont Road. Then came the opening in 1990 of the Morgantown Mall just beyond that interchange.

Malls And Money

Ohio-based developer Glimcher Realty Trust put its mall down just outside Westover city limits. That didn’t sit right with Johnson, coming in as mayor of a struggling town. “He saw that mall sitting there not participating in the cost of city government,” Stranko says. “They get a workforce, they get customers—the streets feeding into the mall are Westover streets. He saw the mall as draining the economy of ‘Main Street’ Westover and not putting anything back into the city.”

Johnson proposed to loop the mall into the Westover city boundary. The mall and its businesses would pay business and occupation (B&O) and property taxes; in return, the city would provide services like law enforcement. Glimcher rejected the proposal. The seven-year saga that followed has played out at the Monongalia County Commission, Monongalia Circuit Court, and now the state Supreme Court of Appeals, where it’s about to be decided for good. Johnson feels confident because, while Westover was the first town in the state to seek to annex an adjacent mall, Oak Hill and Summersville have since succeeded at the Supreme Court level.

Meanwhile, though, Johnson has negotiated the annexation of The Gateway development at Exit 155 with developer Cliff Sutherland, to be finalized this spring. Under the agreement, Gateway businesses will pay B&O, hotel occupancy, and property taxes to the city. In return, Westover will provide services like road, street light, and landscape maintenance as well as law enforcement. Sutherland says an in-city location assures potential retail and commercial occupants that services will be kept up, and at a reasonable cost. “We’ve had a lot of positive feedback from the commercial properties that are locating at The Gateway,” he says. “And it’s a good thing to help Westover do things for their community that they couldn’t have done without that revenue source.”

Businesses at Exit 152 up to and including Lowe’s have been within city limits for a while, Johnson says. The Morgantown Mall and Morgantown Commons above it currently lie within city limits, pending the Supreme Court’s decision. And Johnson is in productive negotiations with WestRidge at Exit 153, aimed at annexing that very large development-in-progress. Agreements in place so far have doubled the size of Westover. They’ve also doubled its budget, from the $2 million Johnson took on in 2008 to $4 million in fiscal 2017.

What An Extra $2 Million Can Do

That growing annual infusion of cash, plus more than $1 million in grants the city has won since 2008, is letting Westover catch up on necessities and amenities. “We’d lost police to other places—it’s been a struggle—but now we’re getting some of our pay on par with other places,” Johnson says by way of example. He’s added code enforcement staff, too.

The city has updated its equipment: among the purchases, new garbage trucks, police vehicles, and a recycling truck and bins. Westover puts a strong emphasis on keeping the city clean and also spends a couple hundred thousand dollars to pave streets every year, Johnson says—more than $1 million this year.

A new planter at The Triangle and welcome signs on Dunkard Avenue and Fairmont Road gave the town a bit of a facelift. The city has expanded the senior center, and new ballfield scoreboards and pavilion roofing at Westover City Park made public spaces more inviting.

But among the most ambitious improvement projects are sidewalks—miles of them. In the 1920s and ’30s, four grocers operated on Holland Avenue, a sign of a walkable town. The streets have gotten wider, busier, and faster over time, but the people of Westover still like to get around on foot. “We do have a lot of walking traffic,” Johnson says. So the city is leveraging some of its newfound cash to match federal grants for walkways along the main thoroughfares. “We’ve done two phases of sidewalks so far,” he says. “We started at The Triangle and went up Dunkard Avenue and Holland Avenue. Now we’re going to go all the way down Dunkard to Dent’s Run and come back up the other side. The next project’s going to be on the Fairmont Road.” There’s also a project in the works to connect the Maple Grove–Morgan Heights–Fairmor area with Westover City Park by trails.

The city’s budget will grow as the last properties at The Gateway are developed, and especially if WestRidge is annexed. “It takes about two years for property taxes to get on the rolls after new annexations,” Johnson says. “Hopefully we’ll eventually be able to lower the levy as far as property taxes. We want to make everything easier for people to live here, and for businesses.”

Tying It All Together

These days, Westover city government is working pretty well. “We don’t agree all the time,” Johnson says, “but for the most part we do because everybody has the city’s best interests at heart.” With revenues flowing in and basic services covered, the amenities residents still wish they had may not be the hardest things to get: A food market. Aesthetic appeal on the main drag. A town center.

Although the town had many markets a century ago, its last supermarket, a Shop ’n Save on Fairmont Avenue, closed in 2010—one of those ways Stranko mentioned that malls can drain Main Street. “When I was a kid, Shop ’n Save was the place to go,” Johnson says. “But it had a hard time competing with the food section of the Super Kmart.” That was at Morgantown Commons and has also since closed. Now, though, operating within just a few miles of Westover in several directions are ALDI, two Giant Eagle supermarkets, three Krogers, Sam’s Club, and Save-A-Lot. “I’ve talked to a couple of the major supermarket people,” Johnson says, “and they claim our population couldn’t support a supermarket here now. The chances of anything coming in to replace the Shop ’n Save are slim to none—not on a major scale.”

Still, a smaller market might be a possibility, he says. He has talked with a local who has experience in the business, although there’s nothing in the works so far.

More important to some is the starkness of the main drag through town. “There are so many nice residential areas on this side of the river, and we feel that the Holland Avenue–Fairmont Avenue corridor needs to complement that,” says Cole, the WVU graduate who’s settled with his wife in Westover. “The best way to unify a streetscape is with street trees and color with landscaping,” he says—he’s a landscape designer. He and his wife, an architect, and a small group of other residents began volunteering their services this spring to businesses along Holland Avenue. “If we get one business to realize the importance of the aesthetic aspect, and they feel, ‘Wow, this is going to improve my business because it looks like I care,’ I think people will be drawn to that,” Cole says. “We hope that other businesses see that and say, ‘We can do that, too.’”

What might ultimately give Westover a stronger identity is a “town center”—a place where people can go for coffee, a haircut, or a little boutique shopping and get several errands done in one location rather than having to travel to each activity. Turning The Triangle into a town center for Westover is a recommendation in the town’s 2013 update to its 10-year comprehensive plan. It’s not on the mayor’s radar right now—he’s focused on securing the annexations and improving city services. But resident Marc Glass, one of the group working with Cole, feels that sidewalks and beautification could bring that about naturally. “My thinking is, make the park awesome and connect communities and public facilities, like schools, to the park, and that will make Westover awesome,” Glass says. “Then maybe the economic development of shops serving humans will fall into place.”

McCulla heard a developer speak recently who said development around Morgantown is going clockwise. “Forty years ago, it was in the north, where the hospitals are. Then it moved east to Cheat Lake, and recently it’s south on the Grafton Road where we’ve seen development,” McCulla says, agreeing with this view. “The next logical place will be west: Granville, Westover. I think Westover’s got an opportunity here, with new construction that’s going on. People are stepping up in the community. You’re starting to see, so to speak, a rebirth—a revitalization. I’m optimistic.”

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