NS Field Office opens in East Palestine

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — In the weeks that followed last year’s train derailment in East Palestine, Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw made a promise to the village and surrounding communities. Admittedly, he couldn’t undo the events of Feb. 3, 2023, but he could use the railroad’s resources to help East Palestine recover and see that recovery to end. He promised Norfolk Southern was in for the “long haul” — a bit of railroad jargon that can be traced back to 1873.

On Monday, that promise was kept when the Norfolk Southern Field Office opened its doors at 428 N. Market St.

“The commitment our CEO made last February is the same commitment we are working toward today,” Director of Community Affairs at Norfolk Southern Stacey Mansfield said. “Alan made the commitment that we were going to stay here and make things right and help this community thrive again and I think opening this field office shows that’s what we are doing and we aren’t going anywhere.”

Located at the corner of Market and East Clark streets, the field office is now the permanent home of the Norfolk Southern Family Assistance Center — a centralized resource hub for residents seeking support and answers to questions that still linger in the village and other communities impacted by the rail disaster. The seeds of the FAC were planted in the early hours of the derailment. Norfolk Southern set up its first assistance center at the community room at the city park as evacuated families within the 1-mile zone received financial aid for temporary housing. Two weeks later, assistance operations were moved to the Abundant Life Church in New Waterford. Last May, the center moved into the village and leased space in the former Rebecca’s Banquet Hall facility. According to the latest numbers made available by the railroad, 11,799 family visits have taken place at the FAC with over $20 million in direct financial assistance distributed to area families. Norfolk Southern ended its relocation assistance to residents on Feb. 9, but other derailment-related support is ongoing. The benefits are decided on a case-by-case basis and claims are still being accepted.

Moving the FAC to the field office was the next logical step, said Mansfield.

“We could have kept our family assistance center in New Waterford or on Rebecca Street the whole time, but we wanted something more permanent, something that shows we are here now and will be for a long, long time,” she said. “The sign outside is a temporary one, but a permanent one will be put up soon. More importantly, this is a sign that we are staying and are still here to help.”

It also made sense to put a field office in the village. Aside from providing outreach through the FAC, the field office is also meant to house community engagement and operational functions. The railroadás base for business in East Palestine has been operating from rented space inside the Centenary United Methodist Church. Those offices are now relocated permanently to the field office. The new field office will also give Norfolk Southern space to conduct day-to-day business unrelated to the derailment in the village. With the interior work complete, work on the outside of the building continues. When completed, the building will have a brick facade to better match the aesthetic of the downtown district of East Palestine.

“We could have built a field office anywhere, but it made sense to put it here,” Mansfield said. “We could have built a field office in Canton or Akron or Cleveland, but Alan said ‘we are staying here’ so we dug our heels in, bought property and we made a commitment.”

The purchase of the real estate in the village is a way for the railroad “to put down roots,” so to speak, but those roots were put down nearly two centuries ago when Dr. Robert Chamberlain, the community’s first physician, surveyed and mapped the route for the Fort Wayne line to run through what is now known as East Palestine. The section –­ part of the Ohio and Pennsylvania Railroad –­ extended west from Pittsburgh via Fort Wayne, Indiana, to Chicago, Illinois. Its construction was part of the Industrialist Revolution and railroad boom that followed between 1835 and 1848. Towns were erected around the railroads as the new industry not only provided jobs but opened up a commerce of transports and exports not possible before the installation of iron rails across the country.

“The railroad, in a sense, is like the military in that you can’t go to a lot of towns where somebody hasn’t had family work on the railroad. Whether it was their daddy and their grandaddy, there’s some sort of connection to the railroad,” Manfield said.

The Fort Wayne line, as it is still called today, eventually was passed to Penn Central Transportation in 1968 and Conrail in 1976. In 1998, following the breakup of Conrail, Norfolk Southern acquired the line east of Crestline.

With the line, Norfolk Southern also acquired the village’s train depot. The depot, located at the corner of Taggart and Market streets, was built in 1905. Renovations on that structure have also been underway since last year. Mansfield said the plan is to turn the keys over to the village once they are complete, which is expected to be in the next few weeks. Norfolk Southern will donate the historic depot back to the village along with a $100,000 grant to “support the village’s continued development of the space.”

The projects are small steps to a bigger picture.

“Alan was committed and Alan still remains committed to East Palestine,” Mansfield said. “All of us at Norfolk Southern are. We are proud of the progress we’ve made. There are people that are not going to be positive about it, but it’s nice to see the folks who are saying ‘let’s build off the positivity’ and work together to make East Palestine thrive.”


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