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Jeffrey Morris: Roxby’s Vision Invests in People’s Passion to Reinvent Wheeling

WHEELING – A new company born just two years ago in the Ohio Valley has been turning heads and raising eyebrows with its recent acquisitions in Wheeling, where everyone – from its growing team of local employees to multimillionaire investors from out-of-state – share in their enthusiasm for and unwavering belief in the company’s 35-year-old chief executive.

That visionary leader behind the curtain at Roxby Development is Jeffrey Morris, a valley native who circled the globe for more than a decade as a young adult only to land back home in the Northern Panhandle of West Virginia with a whole new perspective … and an unbridled drive to make an impactful difference in the community.

Morris came home to work on a single project, and ironically because of the pandemic, he was – in a way – forced to stay put here. As the COVID crisis brought many things to a halt, Morris slowed down long enough to reflect on his life’s goals, to look introspectively on the things that were important to him and to truly refocus his drive. During that time, he also fell in love … with Wheeling.

“It took me 15 to 16 years away from West Virginia and Wheeling, living on three other continents, to come back and realize – actually the coolest, scrappiest, most capable and interesting people in the world exist in West Virginia,” he said. “They just do. And I’ve been everywhere.”

A native of Moundsville and a 2005 graduate of The Linsly School, Morris is a college drop-out. He’s ventured and lived everywhere from Germany as an exchange student to New York (he reluctantly attended NYU for two years, but never finished) to Pittsburgh, and with soul-searching stops in Southeast Asia and Australia for a few years.

He cut his teeth in business along the way by trying and succeeding – but more importantly by trying and failing, and then learning valuable lessons from overcoming those challenges. From selling hard-to-obtain electronic U.S. gadgets to college friends in Europe to starting food stands on the Coral Coast of Australia, flipping a house in Detroit and working as a developer for major high rises in Pittsburgh, Morris gained knowledge and confidence in his business prowess every step of the way.

He learned a lot about residential construction working with his father’s business in Pittsburgh’s South Hills after he left college. He later shared that knowledge with one of the players who helped bring him back to the United States – Pittsburgh-area developer Jason Cohen, who in turn helped Morris learn a great deal about how to finance projects.

Today, investors who know Morris truly believe in him, and they’re willing to invest in the ventures on which his passions are focused.

“If you have assets of hundreds of millions or billions of dollars, and your business is to invest that money, you diversify your portfolio,” Morris said of his investors. “At the higher-risk end of that – usually a couple percent – is a very speculative ‘betting on people’ or investing in people. It’s about them finding a young racehorse and betting on it.”

Morris has become that racehorse, and those who have bet on him have been pretty happy with their return on investment. So much so that the high-stakes bets now are rolling in Wheeling.

In January 2020, Morris purchased the old Mount Carmel Monastery in Wheeling with the intention of transforming the deteriorating landmark into a vibrant boutique hotel. He formed Roxby Development at that time. The company’s name was concocted from the combination of his grandparents’ first names – Rox and Beulah “Bea” Simmons.

Morris was seduced by the history and the charm of the old Monastery building, and he was driven to reinvigorate it and steer it toward a new life.

“The architecture of Wheeling is what made me fall in love with architecture, design and development,” he said. “And I’ve always been obsessed with business. It’s kind of in my blood.”

However, the pandemic struck shortly after Roxby Development was founded, and even though progress sort of slowed at the Monastery, that didn’t stop the buzz in the community surrounding what the young developer was doing.

Over the course of the following two years in the wake of COVID, Roxby Development founded Roxby Labs – first to provide a service to decontaminate N-95 surgical masks for reuse, and subsequently to provide testing services to the public with quick turnaround times for results.

Heads in Wheeling really started turning after Roxby Development started purchasing buildings that are considered local landmarks. The company reached an agreement to take ownership of the Scottish Rite Cathedral on 14th Street – reinvesting in the historic building and opening it to the public with special events, while serving as the facility’s caretakers for the Masonic membership that still has a home there.

Roxby also purchased the 12th Street Garage, a house overlooking the city on Grandview Street now known as Cliff House West, and an anchor building in the heart of downtown – the McClure Hotel.

“To make downtown livable and viable, you’ve got to have a hotel,” Morris said. “A hotel brings constant, different, changing people. And it brings the draw of people wanting to come and do cool things, if you have a hotel that people want to stay in.”

This month, Roxby was set to close on the purchase of the former Kaufman’s building downtown and the riverfront Mull Center building at 1025 Main St., where Roxby Labs and the Roxby Development office headquarters will eventually relocate later this year.

A number of Roxby’s recent property purchases – including the hotel and Scottish Rite Cathedral – were not targets on the company’s radar at first. Morris simply wasn’t interested … initially. But each property has since become a key component to Roxby’s mission – which in essence is to not only open new chapters for these landmark structures but to forge a new path to a reinvented Wheeling.

“I see Wheeling being a totally different place in five years, which is exciting,” Morris said, who noted that the company is currently focused on reinvesting its profits back into the company’s continued growth. Many exciting new things are on the horizon, too – including events and entertainment ventures set to unfold this year.

While Roxby Development moves forward, it’s list of projects continues to grow – as does its staff. The team has grown to about 88 or 89 employees with salaries and benefits accounting for an annual payroll currently that today tops $4 million (excluding Morris – who does not draw a paycheck). And each team member shares Morris’ passion. Those who gravitate toward him seem to get caught in orbit around him and his vision, and as an unwritten prerequisite for his staff, they also have to have some skin in the game. He basically insists that they live in Wheeling to be fully invested in the cause.

The company is only two years old, but Morris said he is already seeing Roxby bucking a trend that can be seen virtually everywhere else – company turnaround. Employees don’t seem to leave Roxby because they, too, share in the company’s belief.

“You hear about the great resignation – that’s partially because large companies don’t pay well, oftentimes,” he said. “But it’s also because COVID made them realize that they don’t want jobs that don’t feel have meaning or value to society at large, whereas working here – you’re building a city. That’s the whole goal – that’s our business model. The labs, the Scottish Rite, the Monastery, the hotel, the Mull Center … all of it is because our business model and goal is to – over the course of our lives – build Wheeling into a city that people want to live in and thrive in.

“That’s the whole company’s mission is to rebuild Wheeling.”

Morris said he had somewhat of an epiphany after Roxby reached its deal with the Scottish Rite in the fall of 2020. He stayed in the building that night. He hasn’t left since then, and doesn’t plan to do so.

“I fell asleep on a couch in the basement – an old couch surrounded by junk – and I was like ‘I love this building. I’m never leaving,'” he said. “I’ve lived here pretty much ever since, and I’ll never leave. Since I graduated high school and moved 22 times in my adult life, I had never been somewhere where I wanted to live for the rest of my life. Not a space or a city. Whereas I have both now.

“I love this building more than any place that I’ve ever been. It has a heart and soul that I can’t duplicate. And I don’t ever want to leave Wheeling – I’ve fallen in love with it in a way that I didn’t think was possible.”