The seats were orange, the front steps were steep, and the scoreboard was a relic from nearly 40 years ago at the time Wheeling’s City Council approved earmarking nearly $7 million worth of sales tax revenue in 2014 to fund a three-phase renovation project at Wesbanco Arena that is set for completion at the end of this week.
New railings and seats, a video scoreboard and video boards throughout the building, and an atrium-style front façade all will be on display this weekend. On Friday, an invite-only gathering will have a chance to see the new space, and the public is invited to an open house this Saturday between 10 a.m.-1 p.m.
“It really feels great that we are at this point, but we had very few issues along the way, and our contractor (Colaianni Construction) was outstanding,” Wesbanco Arena General Manager Denny Magruder reported. “Just to see it tells the story. It’s phenomenal, and we are now just as good as any other similar building in our market size. It’s truly a dream come true.
“This is the kind of change that you dream about as a building manager; I can tell you that. I didn’t know if something like this could ever happen, but here we are today,” he continued. “I just didn’t know if our city could generate that kind of revenue for a project like this one because there are needs in our city. But they figured it out and made it happen.”
Magruder is hopeful a large crowd will attend Saturday’s open house so they can be reminded how many different kinds of events can be staged at the 38-year-old venue.
“There is a very nice grand opening ceremony that has been planned for Friday evening for some invited folks, but then on Saturday we are opening up the building for everyone to come see the new addition and the rest of the building,” Magruder reported. “The people who attend will be able to see all of the attributes that the building now offers, so we are very hopeful we have a large crowd here.
“It’s a very versatile building, and even more so now with the additions that have been made during the past 36 months. We can do a lot of things here, like the bull riding and the Monster Truck events and the circuses. We have banquets of all sizes, and now maybe even some black-tie events in the new, front area of the building,” he said. “Plus the Nailers, basketball, and the concerts. It’s a very flexible building.”
The most visible difference to the former Wheeling Civic Center now is the front of the building, which extends out to 14th Street instead of forcing patrons to climb stairs to arrive inside the venue. The addition of 7,200 square feet will house an interior ticket office and a Nailers/Penguins gift shop, but it will be utilized in a plethora of different ways.
“I believe people coming to us to buy tickets for our events are going to be very happy because now they’ll be able to do that while inside the building and not stuck out in the weather,” Magruder explained. “And we’ll be using it for meetings, receptions, pre- and post-event functions, and for additional space for vendors to sell souvenirs and things like that.”
Wheeling City Manager Robert Herron explained that all three renovation phases cost a total of $6.7 million, with the façade addition priced at $4.22 million. The interior seating, handrails, and video boards totaled $2.48 million.
Magruder enjoyed the renovation process the past few years, and that is because all three phases were performed in smooth fashion as far as cost estimates and projected timeframes were considered.
“The projects did come in on budget, and it’s all taken exactly how long the contractors said they would when they submitted their bids and got started,” Magruder said. “As far as the new façade, there were only a couple of minor change-orders, but that was something we did expect because the project involved tearing up the original foundation on land that’s next to the Ohio River. When you do something like that, you really don’t know what you are going to find down there until you get there.
“But the contractor did not find too many problems, and that allowed everything to cost what it was supposed to cost and to be completed in the month of June as expected,” he said. “So once we have the grand opening and a public open house this weekend, it’s ours to use.”
But what difference will the improvements make to the number of events taking place inside Wesbanco Arena? When the venue initially opened in 1978, the civic center staged more than 30 concerts per year for nearly a decade. Will such shows now return to the corner of 14th and Water streets?
“I know there are expectations and that’s OK,” Magruder said. “The biggest difference it’s made already is the level of pride that we have in the building, and the level of pride that members in our community now have in the building. And what renovations can guarantee is that we are on the radar with more promoters out there looking for venues.
“Now, that doesn’t mean every act is going to come to Wheeling. In the end, with the promoters it always comes to down to how many tickets can be sold and how much revenue can be generated because it’s a business,” he said. “Plus, along with those acts and the Wheeling Nailers, we also have a lot of folks who like to come and do exhibit shows, and they are always looking for nice facilities in cities that they can afford.“Is it going to bring in more concert traffic? I know that’s what a lot of people want to know. In the beginning, likely not, but it is the beginning of seeing more concert traffic here in Wheeling. The increased comfort level helps, and the video boards and the appearance of the arena all help, too, so it’s the beginning all of a lot of good things that we see happening here.”
Although Magruder, who has been the general manager of Wesbanco Arena since he was hired in 1986, cannot promise prosperity for the venue’s future, he has heard from others in the business that the renovations are definitely a positive development for him and the city of Wheeling.
“And after having those conversations I’m confident that these projects do put us, as an arena, back on that map and it’s been fun for me and our staff here to watch people stare at it, especially during the last few months when the façade was really taking shape,” he said. “And I think the people who work here are popping our chest out a little more now when we walk in front of the building, and that’s simply because of pride.
“It’s no longer something that we’re trying to hide anymore. It’s now something that we want everyone to see, and that makes all of the difference,” Magruder continued. “And it’s not just about the façade; it’s about all of the renovations that have been performed and the entire building. The new seats are much more comfortable than what we had; the video boards may not be as large as the ones in the NHL, but they are just as capable of doing all the bells and whistles as those boards are, and the new seating areas have been very, very popular.
“Does that mean we’ll see the type of bands that were rolling in and out of here in the 1970s and 1980s? No, but that’s because the entertainment industry has changed so much over the years,” he added. “I like to be honest, and I like to be real with people, so I will say that I do think we’re going to see an increase in business because of these projects. I do believe we’ll see some pretty big shows come in now, and I believe we’ll have a lot of happy people in Wheeling and the surrounding areas.”
(Photos by Steve Novotney)