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Former glass factory property gets new owner

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LINDA HARRIS / The State Journal.  Henry Rithner stands in front of the former Brooke Glass factory in Wellsburg. LINDA HARRIS / The State Journal. Henry Rithner stands in front of the former Brooke Glass factory in Wellsburg.

Henry Rithner was pensive as he stood in front of the former Brooke Glass factory in Wellsburg, a property steeped in more than a century of his family's history.

Idled for years, the sprawling factory had fallen into disrepair. Rather than see it continue to deteriorate, the family recently sold what was left of it to the Business Development Corporation of the Northern Panhandle.

"I used to come down here with my father when I was a little boy," Rithner said at the site March 31 before a news conference announced the deal. "I'd play in the boxes in the warehouse while he managed the place. 

"I really grew up here. It's been my life's work, and I'm glad to have had the opportunity."

Built in 1879, the building originally housed Riverside Glass Works. Rithner's grandfather, also named Henry, acquired the factory in 1908 and gave it a new name, Brooke Glass. A Swiss emigree, he had honed his skills at Fostoria as well as Consolidated Lamp & Shade in Coraopolis, Pa.

"The whole manufacturing scene, the people who worked here — I'll certainly miss them," Rithner said. "I was sorry to see it deteriorate.

"We had to tear down the hot metal department on the production end; it was literally falling apart. It would have taken a big investment to keep going and business just wasn't that good."

Ford said the building is beyond repair.

"(It's) in poor condition and has too many recognized environmental concerns that must be removed," he said.

While prospects typically balk at taking on environmental liabilities, Ford said it's doable for the BDC because, as a non-profit, it has access to state and federal funding sources for identifying and remediation of contamination that private landowners can't tap into.

Already, the Benedum Foundation has awarded nearly $380,000 in funding for a brownfields program that spans four counties in two states — Brooke and Hancock counties in West Virginia, in the BDC service base, and Beaver and Allegheny counties in Pennsylvania under the auspices of the North Side Industrial Development Corp. and Riverside Center for Innovation in Pittsburgh.

The funds will be used for site-related costs, which include surveys, market planning, market assessments and identification, and to complete environmental assessments for high-interest properties, at specific, high value properties in the four counties. There's also a community development component, which includes costs associated with identifying additional stakeholders and gathering community input on re-use options, as well as a regional networking/marketing initiative.

"We're not going to wait until a site selection committee comes to our door," NWVBAC Director Patrick Kirby said. "Some have been here already and walked away because we didn't have the information they needed. They want sites that are ready to go."

Wellsburg Urban Redevelopment Authority chairman Ryan Weld, applauded the Rithners for their foresight, saying the family "knew what it could mean to the city" to find new uses for the property.

"It's going to represent new opportunities for the city," he said. "We're very excited about what (the sale) represents and what the future is going to bring to Wellsburg."

BDC Executive Director Pat Ford said whatever they do with the site down the road, they intend to revisit the role Brooke Glass played in the community's past "and the impact it will have in future."

"As we move forward, we're going to make sure any future development reflects the legacy of the site and the Rithner family," he said.

Wellsburg Mayor Sue Simonetti was just as enthusiastic, pointing out the Brooke Glass property is key to the plan to redevelop the city.

"We're doing all the things we need to do," City Manager Mark Henne added. "We formed the Redevelopment Authority, we're doing a comprehensive plan and a blight plan; we're looking to the future. 

"We started out targeting brownfield sites ... but that's not the only thing we're doing. We're looking at the problem of dilapidated housing; we're working on a plan to get our arms around it. We want to be in position for Wellsburg to look to the future."

Henne said the projects they have in mind are difficult, "no question about it." 

"Each one has different degree of difficulty and ... the pool of players we need to bring to the table keeps getting bigger," he said. "But, we're very serious about collaborating with others to do the very best we can for the City of Wellsburg."