It was February when a pair of representatives from Grow Ohio Valley pitched an idea during ReInvent Wheeling’s “Show of Hands” event about a fresh foods grocer in East Wheeling, but now the focus of the project has changed to the city’s downtown district.
Ken Peralta joined Danny Swann on the stage of the Capitol Ballroom, and the pair collected the majority vote from 200-plus attendees to capture more than $2,000 in prize winnings, but since that cold winter evening along Main Street the conversation switched from the initially proposed location on Grandview Street to a few different available properties closer to Wheeling’s primary business district.
“And that’s because there are more people living and working in the downtown area right now than there have been for many, many years,” said Peralta, who is the gentleman in the cover photo. “I think we have great grocery stores in the Wheeling area, and I love Jebbia’s Market, too. I shop there all of the time, and that’s why I think a grocery store in the downtown district would complement what we already have here, and it would provide a place for the residents linger in the district. We know the interest is there, and that is why it has to be right coming out of the gate.
“As long as that grocery store becomes a reality for the downtown area, we would then transition the use of the Grandview property as a part of our AmeriCorps program that is working toward developing a healthy food system for the people here in the Wheeling area,” he explained. “It’s a very unique program, and the opportunities that the people with AmeriCorps have because of it is something you really can’t find in many areas around the country. That program is attracting a lot of interest and a lot of people to this area, so we’re very excited about that.”
Once reclaiming the property Peralta and many involved with Grow Ohio Valley soon saw issues with the proposed local farm-to-store location, including the residential nature of the neighborhood, a lack of off-street parking, and limited exposure to local residents.
“We have come to realize that Grandview Street is a lousy place for a grocery store, and when we have had people, there the neighbors did complain because of the number of cars that have been parked near our location,” Peralta said. “So we have learned a lot since February, so our hope is that we can bring that concept that’s been very successful in Huntington here to Wheeling. From what I hear, there’s a great chance that it could happen by the spring and maybe during this fall. If that doesn’t happen, then we will do something at Grandview next year.”
There would be, however, one giant-sized difference between what most recognize as a common grocery store and what Peralta has been researching for the Friendly City.
“An example of the idea has already arrived to the state of West Virginia because a group of people was able to launch that kind of grocery store in Huntington. They paid a visit to a similar model in a city in Ohio, and they brought the same concept back with them, and they received a lot of support from city government,” he reported. “It is very much like a consignment situation where the farmers are bringing the produce, and then they get 80 percent of the sales. We think that is outstanding and would love to see the same concept here in the Wheeling area.
“Now that does not mean the farmers will stop going to farmers markets? No. They would, of course, continue doing that,” Peralta continued. “This kind of store would be an extra location for the farmers to go to and sell what they grow.”
The structure on Grandview Street was donated to Grow Ohio Valley by the House of Carpenter, and Savage Construction donated two days of service in order to cut a driveway to the back of the two-story building. Once the deed transfer was completed, a large group of volunteers joined Peralta and Swann to perform the interior rehabilitation, and quickly afterward the non-profit adopted the idea to create the grocery store that could offer the fruits and produce Grow Ohio Valley grows at four different locations.
“And almost immediately after ‘Show of Hands’ we found a deal for some equipment that we were going to need for the project, and we found the reclaimed refrigeration and display equipment through Scrappy Pappy’s,” Peralta explained. “Initially our goal was to get the store up and running by last March, but then the growing season took a lot of time away from us because we started using the high-tunnel greenhouses. and then our mobile markets started visiting almost 20 different areas of the Upper Ohio Valley.
“We discovered that, at the time, we didn’t have the capacity to make the grocery project happen when we wanted it to, so we moved the target the fall,” he said. “But now there is a big movement swirling around to get a grocery store in the downtown area, so we have had a lot of meetings about it in an effort to build a lot of support from the farmers that we do have here in the area because we would like to see them make the most of the profits from a year-round grocery store.”
These days the Grandview Street property serves as an administrative and foods procurement center for the organization with work areas on the first floor and a walk-in cooler, work stations, and multiple sinks on the bottom level. It is located in close proximity to Grow OV’s future apple orchard and “Meadow Farm” along the peak of Wheeling Hill.
The overall area once was known as Vineyard Hills, and has been the home to several public housing structures since, but the street is now lined by houses within the Grandview Heights residential development. City of Wheeling officials worked with Peralta to legally allow the group’s farming activities in the two hilltop areas that are owned by the Zane Estate, and the agreement permits only leasing the land, but the acreage can never be sold.
“And we really appreciated the cooperation from the city, and we’re going to keep pushing for more and more growth even though this past spring and summer was a difficult and challenging growing season. But that’s farming. It’s not easy work, and you can ask any of the farmers that we still have in this area,” said the Grow OV’s CEO. “That’s why I always offer kudos to our local farmers. Farming is a very, very hard thing to do.
“With every year we are learning more and more about our operation and what grows the best of all at our locations, and we are now moving into the future with the intent of improving for the next year because what we do know is that a lot of healthy foods went to many people here in the Wheeling area this past year,” Peralta added. “And next year we will grow our low maintenance crops at Sandscrest, we are expanding the farming at Farm 18 in East Wheeling, and we are adding grow areas where our high-tunnel greenhouses are because our overall goal always has been the same since we started this company. We want to supply our community with the best and healthiest foods we can, so this area becomes a healthier region than it is today.”
(Photos by Steve Novotney)