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How Small Town Mayor Got A Steel Plant and $15 Million For Town

December 6, 1987

FOLLANSBEE, W.Va. (AP) _ What gets a mayor elected 10 times?

In the case of Adam Dalessio, it hasn’t hurt that he’s a character - an inveterate horse-player and a folksy storyteller with a hearty laugh. But he’s also a canny politician who’s not afraid to credit his own efforts, often unorthodox ones, to make life a little better here.

Now, as he nears his 80th birthday next month, he’s had his biggest success, a multimillion-dollar windfall for his town of 4,000. And he aims to stay in office to make sure nobody ″throws it away.″

At a time when the steel industry is in decline, he has brought a new computerized steel coating plant to Follansbee to replace the one where he once worked. It will bring $15 million for something in which the town invested nothing.

Beyond that, the joint Japanese-American project means 100 new jobs initially for about 85 Americans and 15 Japanese, prospects for expansion if the new mill makes money, and a boon to the economy of the Ohio Valley. Already, the joint venture has given jobs to nearly 400 construction workers building the $65 million plant.

The plant began tests last month and is scheduled to start commercial operations next April 4 with a capacity of 270,000 tons per year.

It would not be happening without Dalessio.

″He was the leader in getting this project here, no question,″ said John E. Wright III, the president and chief operating officer of Wheeling-Nisshin, Inc., the company formed by Nisshin Steel Co., Ltd., of Japan and a hometown manufacturer, Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp. Nisshin is the principal owner with 67 percent.

″I can’t think of any other American city getting a new steel mill instead of losing one,″ said Kevin DeFebbo, the city manager.

Attracting Japanese investment was a feat for a man who has rarely traveled farther than a few hundred miles from home. And yet Dalessio has reached out before.

Take 1976, for example. While nobody was watching, he led a move to annex a rural unincorporated area that included a coke plant and a chemical plant - expanding Follansbee’s small industrial base, adding $300,000 a year in tax revenue and making possible a downtown spruce-up.

A half dozen trips to Washington over the years at his own expense to lobby congressmen got the town federally subsidized housing for the elderly in 1980, a 48-apartment high-rise named Dalessio Manor. The first apartment went to a woman friend who took care of his dying wife for eight months.

It wasn’t all business. En route to the nation’s capital, he’d take in the horse races in Baltimore. ″I used to go to the Preakness ...,″ Dalessio explained, ″and then I’d stop and see them (congressmen).″

He’s always liked horse racing. During a walk down Main Street with a reporter, he pointed to a building where about 50 years ago bets were taken in a downstairs office. He laughed. ″I was on council and I used to run that horse book,″ he said.

Dalessio’s past dealings helped when Follansbee was competing with towns in Ohio and Pennsylvania for the new Wheeling-Nisshin plant.

He never gave up, even when Wheeling-Nisshin was turned down for a state loan because the Japanese partner did not have a credit rating in West Virginia.

At the suggestion of Wheeling-Pittsburgh executives, he successfully applied for an $8.7 million federal urban development action grant to help finance the new company, pointing out that there was an existing plant in Follansbee.

He pushed the proposal through City Council, once lobbying a couple of members with midnight telephone calls as the deadline approached. As part of the transaction, he backed a special tax break for the new company.

He wrote to senators and congressmen asking for their help. They lobbied for Follansbee.

Wheeling-Nisshin must repay the loan from Follansbee over the next 15 years at 8 percent interest. That amounts to $15 million to be paid at the rate of $1 million a year beginning next July.

None of the money can be used in Follansbee’s $1 million annual operating budget but must be spent for the good of the town.

Dalessio and DeFebbo said some of the money could be used to expand the water plant, to continue the downtown revitalization program of new streets and sidewalks, to renovate the homes of lower-income residents and to try to attract new industry by offering loans at low interest rates.

″I think I’ve done a lot for the town. We could do more when we get the $15 million,″ the mayor said.

″I want to see how we’re going to spend this money. I want to make sure I’m in on it. I don’t want to be out and someone comes in here and throws it away. If I feel good and I don’t get sick, then I’m going to run until I die.″

Dalessio grew up in the steel mills, starting when he was 16 years old. In the more than 50 years he worked, he never made more than $700 a month and ended up with a pension of $132.86 when he retired in 1973.

Sitting in his small office surrounded by plaques and mementos, he remembers, in tears, when his wife died seven years ago.

″I think about it all the time. I didn’t have enough money to bury her. I only had $1,000 insurance on her and her funeral run me $2,700. I never had a penny. I worked in this damn mill and never made no money.″

Dalessio was first elected mayor by 102 votes in 1969 at the age of 61. He campaigned at only six houses.

″I figured everybody knew me. After that election, I used to sit on the city bench and talk to everybody on the street.″

But his biggest boost was a bingo game and raffle he ran for St. Anthony’s Catholic Church for nearly 50 years. ″I met a lot of people that way,″ he said.

Today, he spends four or five hours a day in his office, then goes home for one reason. ″It sounds stupid,″ he said. ″But at three o’clock, I go watch Guiding Light.″

He has no plans to retire as mayor, but a year ago, he did retire from his church work.

Presented with a plaque at a Sunday Mass, he had a few words to say, as usual:

″If and when I die, if I go to heaven, when I get up there, St. Peter will meet me at the gate. He’s going to look at me and say, ’Why, Adam Dalessio, I know you. Go down the hall, make a right turn and go in that big room. Bingo starts in 10 minutes.‴

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EDITOR’S NOTE - George Esper is the AP Northeast regional reporter, based in Boston.