She’s petite and beautiful, and you would never guess she’s the mother of three and a preservationist who has made wise decisions when realism trumps her idealistic streak.
She’s Heather Slack, and she’s a non-native who grew up in a row house in Philadelphia, and she may care more about the heritage in Wheeling than most homegrown residents of the Friendly City. Whereas most natives just see decay on yet another corner, Slack sees a future beyond a structure’s storied history, and she’s proven it. Her company, Kristoffy Real Estate, LLC, currently operates the 14-unit Cornelia Apartments in Center Wheeling; the Riley Flats will open to tenants in Spring 2016; and the preparations for a complete makeover to building No. 3 – the McKay Building at 12th and Eoff streets adjacent to the 12th Street Parking Garage – are in the works.
“I had heard nightmares about being a landlord, but if you do it the right way, I think it’s pretty easy,” said the mother of three single-digit-aged children. “If you pick the right tenants, take care of the properties and any issues they may have, it’s not a bad situation at all.
“I am in a good position right now because I am not in the position where I need an income because my husband is able to provide that so all of the money that is generated goes into the properties or into a building reserve for future projects,” she continued. “If I were not in that position, I know it would be far more difficult to maintain the buildings and live off of that revenue.”
Once the renovations to the Center Wheeling complex were complete, Slack set her sights on East Wheeling, one of the Friendly City’s original neighborhoods with which she is enamored.
“Then I purchased a 10-unit building on 15th Street that needed a lot of work, but now we are only a short time away from finishing it so we can have people move in,” Slack explained. “It took me an entire year to get the tax credits that I needed because it was the first time that I had worked on a project like that, and I made a lot of mistakes in the beginning.
“It’s all accomplished through snail-mail, so that added to the time when I would make a mistake because it took a long time,” added the Philadelphia University graduated (class of 2000). “We were also awarded a development grant for the front façade, so all of it has taken about a year and a half, and the renovations have cost around $600,000. It was the first building that I’ve completely renovated. It’s a good building. I’m excited about it.”
She will begin work on the McKay Building upon completion of the Riley Flats, a structure that features commercial space on the first floor and four apartments on the two floors above.
“That one has a lot of things that I really like, and it reminds me a lot of the buildings that you see in Europe that are on the corners, and all of the tiles floors are perfect, and all of the sinks and tubs are all older and beautiful,” Slack explained. “It’s really in great shape, but we’ll re-plumb and re-wire and a few other expensive things, but all of the pretty stuff is there, and I’m excited about that.
“I am actively looking for a tenant for the first floor right now, and an attorney was in it before it was sold,” she continued. “There were some really cool things in the building when I bought it, and the people at the (Wheeling National Heritage Area Corp.) have a box of letters that we found in the basement.
“I have always admired the building, and when I found out it was up for sale, I jumped at the chance. I went to the county clerk’s office and looked up all of the information, and then I found the owner. That was a very good day because the owner was very aware of the amount of work that needed to be done to completely rehab it,” she added. “The first half of the commercial space on the first floor is ready for use, but the back half of the first floor needs a lot of work because there was a water leak. As far as the apartments, it will depend on how long the process involving tax credits takes, but now that I have navigated that process already, I’m confident the process will go more smoothly this time.”
One potential development, though, did not work out. Slack took a flyer on a thin, two-floor structure near the corner of 15th and Wood streets, a building that once housed a space for the Wheeling Police Department when East Wheeling was riddled with drug trafficking. She made the claim with city officials, the redevelopment process started, and then for economic and personal reasons Slack opted out. The agreement with the city included a reversal clause, and before the time expired, she made that call.
But then there was that newspaper headline: “After Selling to Builder, City Wants Property Back”.
“The only thing that upset me was that the headline was totally inaccurate,” Slack insisted. “The city did not take building back. I gave it back. I emailed Tom Connelly and explained why it wasn’t going to work, and he replied that I had the right to use the reversion clause in the agreement. It’s as simple as that.
“So that’s what I did,” she continued. “There is a group of people in this town that do not support the people who are trying to make it better. I don’t know why. They watched Wheeling decline for so many years without doing anything about it, and now they are bitter about it. A lot of them look at downtown, East Wheeling, North Wheeling, and Center Wheeling, and they think those places are the ghetto.
“I think that’s a horrible word and a horrible way to look at those areas of our city, but that’s the impression that I have developed about them. They don’t care about those neighborhoods, and they don’t care about the people in those neighborhoods. They don’t care about seeing those neighborhoods revitalized because it doesn’t affect them. They work in the downtown, and they leave at 5 p.m. They don’t care about the future.”
Slack does, though, and despite the fact that the structure has not been occupied since the 1990s, she saw beauty where others only see decay.
“At first I was very interested in the building because of its age and location, but the more I tried to make it work, the more difficult it seemed to get,” Slack explained. “Single-units are difficult ventures, and I didn’t want it to sit empty while I collected other single units. That’s the way it works with the banks, but a lot of people do not understand that.
“When it came down to it, the project would have been far too expensive because I wasn’t going to be able to contract my husband Ryan’s company on that project. It was a difficult decision, but it was one that was made very amicably with the city of Wheeling. I’m still hopeful that someone will do something about it, and now all that person has to do is contact the city. Those officials would like to see something positive happen there because of the new J.B. Chambers Recreation Park across Wood Street.”
It is going to take success stories to squelch the naysayers, and she knows it.
“This should be about the city as a whole, and it should be about people wanting to live here because of the efforts that are being made to improve it,” Slack said. “If our downtown neighborhoods are invested in again, more people are going to come here, and then everything will improve. It’s a domino effect.
“That’s what that group of people is missing. They just don’t realize why investing into our city is so important right now,” she continued. “Another thing that’s very important to those neighborhoods is to keep the people who live in those neighborhoods now there. They make those neighborhoods what they have been and what they are now, and that’s why it’s so important to develop affordable housing.
“I think it will take some success stories to prove it to them, but I think when I purchased the building on 15th Street some people thought I was going to be a slumlord, and others said that there was no way I was going to be successful with my goals for that property,” Slack said. “But it can be done, and we’re close to proving that, and I think that will say something when it’s complete and people are moving in. It is possible. It’s really possible. You just have to think outside the box, and those success stories, I hope, will change a lot of minds.”
That’s one of the reasons why Slack plans to continue redeveloping Wheeling’s forgotten properties. She’s even founded a new non-profit – New City –with hopes of saving structures that do not make financial sense to private developers.
“We have a great board of people who believe in our city’s future, and what we want to do is concentrate in properties that may not be able to generate cash-flow for several years, and we would also like to see a entire blocks developed with affordable housing,” she said. “Take the buildings on Market Street near the 14th Street intersection that were purchased recently by the city of Wheeling for example. As a private developer I am not able to make that work. But it would work for a non-profit, and I can see commercial spaces on the street in all of those buildings, and I can see residential living in those spaces.”
“After living in Philadelphia I was shocked with the prices that were being charged here in Wheeling for buildings just as beautiful,” Slack explained. “Here you can purchase a three-story Victorian for only $50,000, and even if you have to put money into them, it just makes sense to me, and it makes sense when considering the future of Wheeling.”
(Photos provided by Heather Slack)