There were a bar, a small apartment on the second level, and a beauty salon on the third floor inside 1107 Main St., and a print shop and a two-story residence within the walls of the neighboring property, but both buildings have been vacant for more than a decade.
Adjacent to Heritage Port Park, where “Bobo” the stainless-steel elephant stands, is the location of the buildings, and the $16 million Health Plan development is directly across Main Street. Wheeling Council members and Mayor Glenn Elliott approved a 60-day purchase option agreement with officials from Domokur Architects Tuesday, and the firm is expected to closely examine the buildings to ensure structural integrity.
“Right now I do not know what the Domokur folks are thinking about, but I would like to see some type of eatery inside 1109 Main St., and 1107 could have something like a nightclub or a fraternal organization in it. But it also could be a coffee shop, too, or a little deli,” said Kurt Zende, an economic development specialist for the city of Wheeling. “The idea is to service the Health Plan employees that are going to be right across the street, and I think there could be some perfect matches if the right developments take place.
“When there exists a need to retail, that’s what usually opens in an area like this one, and that’s been my thought as I have shown these buildings to a number of different people. People have been interested in developing small restaurants, and even though nothing has confirmed yet, I feel we’re getting close,” he continued. “I have met with the Domokur folks twice, and I know those folks are serious about this as long as their people deem the buildings fit for this investment.”
The city of Wheeling purchased the properties in 2016 for more than $200,000 before Elliott and five new council members took office in July as a part of the agreement with The Health Plan to construct its headquarters within the downtown district’s 1100 block. If, after the 60-day inspection by Domokur’s crews, the development firm moves forward with a proposal to the city’s Development Committee, the properties would be transferred to the company.
“At that time the sightline to the river was a concern of the Health Plan folks and that’s why there was a question as far as what to do with 1107 Main St.,” explained Kurt Zende. “But 1107 Main St. is a pretty solid building. It does have some issues on the back end of it that involve water and the foundation in that area, and that will need to be corrected.
“But the bones are good with 1107, and the bones are great with 1109 Main St.,” he said. “With a little ‘TLC’ these buildings could become active again in the pretty near future.”
Zende believes the roofs on each building will need immediate attention if the transfer takes place, and then the facades likely would be the developer’s second priority.
“Once those exterior appeals are improved, the businesses inside will really draw people to their front doors. After those improvements take place, it will be a very attractive stretch along Main Street because these two buildings are connected to two others that are very attractive,” he said. “The developers will have decisions to make as far as how they wish their facades to appear, but the buildings were constructed in 1900, so there are the original facades underneath what we see today. So, what these buildings offer is the way it was several years ago, and that was for the retail business to be on the first floor and the residence to be above. That’s how downtown Wheeling was when it was flourishing the most, and we are seeing that trend return now.”
Wheeling Vice Mayor Chad Thalman has joined Elliott during building tours with the Domokur officials and offered some insight as far as what the developers’ plan may include.
“From speaking to the people from this firm I believe they wish to put commercial businesses on the first levels of both of the buildings, and on the floors above would be apartments,” he said. “One of the buildings has a courtyard in the rear along Water Street, so that could be an area where outdoor seating could be located.
“As far as the residential units on the top floors, the developers mentioned building decks on the back of the buildings to offer those apartments a view of the Ohio River,” continued Thalman, who also represents Ward 1 residents. “It’s an exciting project, so I am very happy that preserving them is the direction this council has taken because I don’t think two more big, empty spaces would have accomplished anything as far as making our downtown a more attractive place to do business or to visit.”
The steel skeleton of the Health Plan headquarters has grown from the ground this winter season thanks to mild weather patterns, and a December completion is projected by city officials. The project, the first privately funded building construction project in the downtown district since the mid-1980s, was announced by CEO Jim Pennington in December 2015.
“I am 34 years old and this is the first time in my lifetime that the attitude of the people of Wheeling has changed,” Thalman said. “For the first 30 years of my life when people would talk about Wheeling, it would be about the past. But now the conversation is about the present and the future, and I’ve lost track of the number of buildings in the downtown that are getting makeovers.
“We’ve made a lot of progress, and we all realize that there’s a lot more to do, but what has been accomplished during the past four or five years has definitely changed the mindset in this city,” he said. “But we are getting to where we want to be so that makes it an exciting time to be in Wheeling.”
The Domokur firm also would be the opportunity to participate in the revamped façade program discussed by the mayor and city council. The initiative was tabled this past Tuesday but Council is expected to include it as either a resolution or an ordinance in less than two weeks.
“This City Council is committed to doing what we can do to make Wheeling a beautiful place to live, and the façade program is a part of those efforts,” explained Thalman. “It would help the exterior of the buildings in our downtown, and it would basically be a matching-grant program up to a certain dollar amount. After that dollar amount it would change to a 20 percent matching program.
“What that means is that a building owner could get as much as $15,000 to help renovate the front of their building, and to get that maximum amount the owner would have to spend at least $52,500 on their project,” he said. “We view it as a long-term investment into the city because it is our hope that it would attract new businesses to the downtown.”
Zende would not be surprised if Thalman’s hopes become a reality.
“Since the first day I was hired by the city, I have been working on attracting new business to the city, and we have done a nice job of that in the Centre Market area,” he said. “But now we are seeing a lot of interest in the downtown and that’s because the Health Plan project is true game changer. It’s why I believe you will see in the near future mom-and-pop retail shops open in the downtown, and I think we’ll see several little eateries because we don’t have enough of that right now for the people who are working in downtown Wheeling now. There will be a need for more than what we have now.
“These two Main Street buildings hopefully will become a part of that solution, and I know there are a lot of other buildings that are being marketed to developers right now,” Zende confirmed. “The majority of people I’ve been meeting with have been from out-of-town companies, but I still have hope we’ll have more local developers get involved, too. I know it’s been a while, but good things are really happening right now in our downtown.”
(Photos by Steve Novotney)