By Steve Novotney
The idea to construct an athletic facility in East Wheeling was a daring one for three primary reasons:
- While playgrounds replaced schools in the past, razing a two-block area had never been done – let alone proposed – before;
- The use of eminent domain consistently produced a debate concerning private property rights and public use, and;
- The East Wheeling section of the Friendly City had turned into the neighborhood with the highest crime rate, and many residents had written it off as “forsaken.”
But those factors did not matter to Wheeling’s six council representatives or Mayor Andy McKenzie, and following three years of raising funds, debating the future use of the complex, and a court battle with three property owners, the J.B. Chambers Recreation Park replaced a two-block area once filled with blighted buildings and consistent criminal activity.
Even Tom Bechtel, the director of Wheeling’s Recreation Department and a former East Wheeling resident, wished he could renovate the structures instead of demolishing the former homes, but that was before he took a close look at the conditions of the structures.
“It was once a really nice area where most of my friends grew up, so I remember thinking that if I ever won the lottery, I’d fix them up and improve my old neighborhood,” he said. “But on the day the new park was announced as a ‘go,’ I walked through the area with Vice Mayor (Gene) Fahey, and it really surprised me.
“We walked down to the alley in the middle of the area, and when I saw a 40-foot tree growing right through an apartment building, and when I saw that most of the structures no longer had roofs, I knew what needed to happen” Bechtel said. “And the new complex has had a great impact on East Wheeling. For the first time in a long time, I can see East Wheeling completely turning around.”
During a recent questions-and-answer conversation with Weelunk, Mayor McKenzie admitted the athletic-facility project was never about an athletic facility. Instead, it was about East Wheeling, the neighborhood.
“What we did is that the J.B. Chambers Foundation stepped up and really invested a significant amount of money in that project, and so did others. A lot of people stepped up because they really believe in this vision,” he said.
“It was never about – and I have said this a million times – it was never about a soccer field. It was never about an athletic complex. It was about revitalizing East Wheeling to give the community back to the people who live there.
“What we needed to do was change the community and get people invested back into the community, so I wanted to show the people in East Wheeling that we were serious about fixing those problems.”
Edgco Inc., of Lansing won the demolition contract, James White Construction of Weirton was awarded the construction project, and Pro-Grass of Pittsburgh captured the bid for the all-purpose playing surface. The transformation also included a new playground and basketball court.
“So far we have been contacted by 28 different organizations, but it’s hard to tell how many different teams have practiced or played there,” Bechtel explained. “That’s because of those 28, many of them are schools with all kinds of different teams that have used it. We had football, baseball, soccer, softball, and lacrosse, and the kids have ranged from grade school to college.
“We received a lot more calls for scheduling than I anticipated because this is a completely different venture,” he said. “We contacted some people in the cities about that, but in Wheeling it’s very different because it’s free. There is no charge to use this facility and that’s pretty unique to Wheeling.”
Bechtel said while speaking with representatives of other municipalities, he discovered that most other communities charged for field use just as Ohio County Schools do.
“It’s just our pools,” he said. “When I tell people from out of town that it only costs 50 cents for a child to go swimming at one of our pools, they seemed amazed. We’re very lucky in Wheeling to have these kinds of facilities, and we’re very lucky that our councils and our mayors provided them to the community the way they do.
“Once it opened, there were groups using the playing surface from 2:20 p.m. until 9:30 p.m. almost every night – even on Friday nights during the high school football season,” Bechtel continued. “But I have also seen dads throwing a football with their sons and mothers kicking around the soccer ball with their kids. It’s the community’s complex; that’s for sure.”
Although demand has been higher than expected, the Recreation Department director said that while scheduling has been challenging, the level of cooperation received by the public has been very pleasant.
“Every single person who has called to use the complex has been extremely professional, and that’s been the case when the schedule has had to change because of games,” he said. “Games do take preference over practice, so we have had to move things around from time to time, but on those occasions everyone has been very understanding.
“Now, in the future we may have more issues because so many people have expressed an interest,” Bechtel continued. “It’s really been remarkable, and there are things scheduled for the facility this week, too.”
Continued development at the J.B. Chambers Recreation Park is expected this year, and Bechtel hopes to see seating, a new scoreboard, and a leveled area for lawn chairs added sooner than later. If such additions take place, they will be funded by private donations just as the installation of the goalposts were this summer.
“There are a lot of possibilities, but I am confident the development of the facility will keep going because the reaction from the community has been very, very positive,” he said. “A lot of what I would like to see added are the simple things like the seating, the scoreboard, and maybe even a press box like what we have for most of the fields at the (J.B. Chambers) I-470 Complex.
“Right now the playing surface is of a higher quality than most of the artificial surfaces around the valley, so if we continue adding to the facility it allows for more potential,” Bechtel added. “This office is scheduling the complex right now, and the schedule appears as if it is going to be very busy again in 2015.”
To contact the Wheeling Recreation Department, please call 304-234-3641.
(Photos by Steve Novotney)