Story By Steve Novotney, Photographs by Steve Novotney and LeeRoy Minnette
(Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two-part series examining Wheeling’s top news stories during 2014.)
It’s a noun, and it means:
- initiative; aggressiveness; resourcefulness:
- courage; spunk; guts:
- common sense; shrewdness.
Revitalization takes gumption.
And people like Danny Swann, W.Va. Dels. Erikka Storch and Shawn Fluharty, Gary West, Wheeling Mayor Andy McKenzie, Jim Crutchfield, and Bob Gaudio have a lot of gumption.
That is why their names are associated with many of the top Wheeling stories of 2014. Their efforts have resulted in success, and their accomplishments have instigated others to get involved and not fear failure. For several decades taking a chance in Wheeling was not a popular choice. Instead, placing the Friendly City in the rearview mirror for opportunities elsewhere was the decision made far too often.
The trends, they are a changing, though, and not only are more young people choosing to remain here post-education, but Wheeling natives are also finding their paths home.
And that’s because gumption is contagious.
Growth for Grow Ohio Valley
It began with a series of “grow boxes” along 15th Street in East Wheeling, and soon Grow Ohio Valley will expand to the east and west hillsides of Wheeling Hill.
Grow Ohio Valley gained the support of the federal government as top Appalachian Regional Council, the USDA, the EPA, and local officials gathered at the Wheeling Artisan Center in downtown Wheeling in early December to announce the partnership of the Wheeling National Heritage Area Corporation, Grow Ohio Valley, and Reinvent Wheeling as one of the winners of the interagency Local Foods, Local Places competition.
The ReInvent Wheeling proposal was one of more than 300 received by federal officials, and the Friendly City will now become one of 26 American communities to be involved. The grant is for technical assistance and does not include a monetary value.
The partnership was selected for its plan to transition the area of Grandview Avenue into a productive public asset and regional hub for local foods such as apples, blueberries, brambles, and assorted specialty foods. The two sides of Wheeling Hill will be utilized as growth areas with the east face featuring an orchard with as many as 1,000 apple trees, and the west face will offer a “teaching farm” for children and adults.
The involved land once was the location of public housing on both the east and west sides. While the east hillside is owned by the Wheeling Housing Authority, the west face of the hillside is still owned by the historic Zane family and is on loan to the city of Wheeling. The city is not permitted to sell the property to a private developer, but it does have the ability to lease the land for public use.
Grow Ohio Valley operated several farmers markets in Wheeling the past two years, including a “mobile market” that was implemented this year so the initiative could reach out to citizens living in the Friendly City’s high-rise apartment buildings. The organization operated several grow areas, including “Farm 18” on 18th Street in East Wheeling.
“The idea of the ‘teaching farm’ is to get people used to growing their own food,” said Grow Ohio Valley’s Danny Swann. “We would like to get into the kids’ heads that growing their own food is just a part of life. It’s just something you do. It’s not a weird thing that you do once on a field trip. It should be something that we do and something that should be a part of your downtown, and it also should be a part of lives.”
The J.B. Chambers Recreation Park in East Wheeling
Four years ago it was a dream, but Wheeling Mayor Andy McKenzie was determined to transform a blighted two-block area of East Wheeling into a recreational facility that could be used by anyone and everyone.
This summer the J.B. Chambers Recreation Park opened for public use, and the facility has proven most popular with local school systems and organizations alike. The facility included an all-purpose, artificial playing surface for football, soccer, lacrosse, and softball, two basketball courts, and a new playground for the neighborhood’s children.
The construction of the $3.3 million park was funded by private donations and public funds, and efforts to continue raising funds will be ongoing, according to McKenzie.
“The goal from the beginning was to build this facility without a cost to the taxpayers, and that’s still the goal,” McKenzie said. “We are working on raising those funds on a consistent basis, and we’ll continue working to secure the dollars needed.
“This park has had a tremendous impact for the residents of East Wheeling,” he said. “Since it opened in June, the schedule has been very busy, and our Recreation Department staff continues to schedule events in 2015.”
C-SPAN Studies the History of the Friendly City
There’s history in these rolling hills, and C-SPAN (Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network) spent a week in the Wheeling area this month examining many tales from the past for a special “Wheeling Weekend” on Jan. 17-18.
Debbie Lamb, the coordinating producer for C-SPAN’s “Cities Tour,” offered details during a Dec. 15 press conference in the third-floor courtroom inside the West Virginia Independence Hall. A total of nine subjects have been selected, and several local residents were asked to participate.
The selected topics are as follows:
- Independence Hall, the birthplace of West Virginia;
- Earl Oglebay and his contributions to the Wheeling community;
- The National Road and the decision to bring it through Wheeling;
- The Lincoln Day speech given by U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy on Feb. 9, 1950, at the McLure Hotel in downtown Wheeling;
- Wheeling’s Frontier Era;
- Authors Jeff Rutherford and Dan Minor;
- The special collections within the Ohio County Public Library, including the content archives within the “Wheeling Room”;
- And the Palace of Gold at the New Vrindaban community in Marshall County.
C-SPAN’s “Cities Tour” is made possible by a partnership with Comcast, and the local segments recorded throughout this week will air on the non-fiction book channel Book TV (on C-SPAN2, Comcast channel 186) and the history channel American History TV (on C-SPAN3, Comcast channel 105). The C-SPAN network is known for its “gavel-to-gavel” coverage inside the two chambers of Congress, as well as its coverage of the Canadian and British parliaments. When politics is not the selected coverage, C-SPAN offers historical and interview programming. According to its website, C-SPAN reaches more than 100 million American households each day.
“We have so much history here in Wheeling that the people know a little about, so to be able to bring out those stories to a national audience is a great thing for our city,” said Wheeling Vice Mayor Gene Fahey. “The impact of many of these historical events has been huge for Wheeling, yes, but also to the state of West Virginia and on the national level.
“The city of Wheeling has played a great role in all three of those histories, and it’s going to be a great thing for our city for the rest of the country to see and hear those stories,” he said. “I look at it as living history.”
The Sales Tax, and Why
When Wheeling’s city manager was preparing to propose his ideas about how reductions in spending could be realized, a citywide conversation began.
How could Wheeling retain the same level of services for its citizens while also paying higher premiums for fire and police pension funds?
A User’s Fee? A $1-per-week fee was proposed by Councilman Ken Imer (Ward 2) in May. All employees of Wheeling-based businesses would have been charged the fee.
However, a 0.5 percent expansion to the Friendly City’s sales tax was the council-approved path. Council had OK’d the implementation of a 0.5-percent sales tax on Oct. 1, and the generated funds were directed toward infrastructure and capital improvements at Wesbanco Arena. The other 0.5 percent, to be implemented on Jan. 1, would fund the fire and police pension funds, as well as allow the city to reduce B&O tax collection by 6 percent.
Purchases involving automobiles, gasoline, and un-prepared foods are exempt from the 1 percent sales tax.
“Until we get to 75 percent funded, that number continues to grow according to the solvency schedule. This fiscal year, the city’s combined contribution is $3,841,000,” Herron explained in October. “When I started in 2002, that number was more like $1.5 million. In 2022 that number will grow to $6.1 million. There’s no funding source for that unless city council considers the options they have.”
Ward Five Councilman Don Atkinson said the decision to create the sales tax is an example of the tough decisions that have been made over the past six years.
“I have said since the day I decided to run for city council that I would never vote to lay anyone off, but that’s not what these reductions represent,” he said. “And I would never vote for anything I thought was going to put anyone in jeopardy. Never.
“These are the kind of decisions that we are faced with far more often than anyone realizes, but that’s also what we signed up to do,” Atkinson added. “Position cuts, sales taxes, building parks, razing downtown buildings — we have to make decisions like these for today and tomorrow.”
Hope for Hines
A 2-year-old captured the hearts of Wheeling in 2014, but for all the wrong reasons.
Hines Rotriga, the young son of Kevin and Debbie Rotriga, was diagnosed with Stage IV neuroblastoma, a type of cancer that forms from immature nerve cells located in many areas of the human body. Neuroblastma most frequently attacks children 5 or younger and can prove fatal.
Soon after clearing tears from their eyes, Kevin and Debbie created a Facebook page dedicated to Hines’ battle. Today, that Facebook Timeline has been “Liked” nearly 29,000 times.
“Since that day he was diagnosed, Hines and our family have received so much support from our families and from our community,” Debbie said. “We started the ‘Hope for Hines’ Facebook page, and it went nuts almost immediately, and the amount of the events people and organizations have put on since has been unbelievable. Our appreciation really can’t be put it into words, and we really have no idea how to thank everyone. We’re just so thankful for everything.
“And we thank God every day for Kevin’s brother, Dave, his wife, Laura, and all of their employees. They’ve all been amazing to us. They’ve been there with us the whole way, and what they have done at Miklas Meat Market has been more than anyone could expect – even from family.”
Dave and Laura Rotriga have owned Miklas Meat Market since 2008, and the butcher’s business on the corner of Edgington Lane and Carmel Road in the Edgwood section of Wheeling has served as the “Hope for Hines Headquarters” for most of the past year. They and their staff members have conducted soup sales and bake sales and hoagie sales and whatever other sale they could think of, and customers can purchase sweatshirts, ball caps, magnetic ribbons, hoodies, T-shirts, teddy bears, cookbooks, and a few raffle tickets, too.
The youngster also has attracted a fan in former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward. The future Hall of Famer has visited Hines on two occasions, and yes, the boy was named after the Pro Bowl receiver.
“The amount of people who have come out of nowhere to help little Hines has amazed our entire family,” Dave Rotriga said. “You know you live in a pretty special place when a community rallies around a little boy’s battle against cancer.”
A Bi-Partisan Election Day in Wheeling
While the “red wave” swept across West Virginia on Election Day 2014, voters in the Third House District in Wheeling decided to return a two-term Republican and offer a chance to a Democratic newcomer.
Del. Erikka Storch was returned to the Mountain State’s House of Delegates for a third, two-year term, and Del. Shawn Fluharty was elected this year after running for the seat two previous times.
Storch garnered the most votes (7,334 – 38 percent), and Fluharty attracted 4,225 votes (22 percent) to defeat Democrat Holli Smith (4,195) and Republican Dolph Santorine (3,672).
“It’s always very humbling for me to gain the trust of the voting public,” Storch said. “I’ve learned during my life never to take anything for granted, and I don’t. I am always a nervous wreck on Election Night but very flattered to be voted to represent the district’s residents for a third term.”
Despite serving as a member of the minority party, Fluharty is enthusiastic about what he can do for the Third House District’s voters.
“I am looking forward to representing everyone of all parties, and I am looking forward to working with Del. Storch,” he said. “I believe that with the two of us representing the Third, the citizens will get the representation they deserve.
“I am just thankful for a lot of different things, but mostly for the people who have stuck by me since the first time I ran for this office,” said the 30-year-old Fluharty. “I am also thankful to all of the people who let me speak with them when I was going to door-to-door the past few months.”
Hilltoppers Play for National Audience
One game short.
The men’s basketball program at West Liberty University battled Central Missouri in the NCAA Division II National Championship in April, and were defeated 84-77 while 3.1 million people watched the contest across the country.
The team finished the season with a 31-4 record.
“Getting that close to our ultimate goal and coming up just short is disappointing,” explained Head Coach Jim Crutchfield. “But those young men had everything to be proud of because of the way they battled throughout the season just to get there.
“I don’t care how talented of a team you have, every team encounters adversity during the course of the season and it always depended on how the players deal with it,” he said. “We had great leadership, and it made all the difference in the world.”
The Hilltoppers are currently 9-0 and will play Concord University in New Athens, W.Va., on Jan. 3. West Liberty is now ranked No. 1 in Division II, the 30th time WLU has been ranked No. 1 in the NCAA Division II poll. West Liberty has been in every Top 25 poll since Feb. 2, 2010, and in every Top 10 since Dec. 13, 2011.
Crutchfield is 278-49 in 11 seasons in West Liberty.
“People ask me all of the time about the system that we run here at West Liberty, and every time I have a tough time explaining it,” Crutchfield said. “We like to get the ball up and down the court. We like a quick pace because the name of the game is putting the ball in the hoop more often than your opponent.
“A coach is only as good as his or her players, so that’s how we go about recruiting during the offseason,” he added. “We look to see what we’ve lost to graduation, and we do our best to replace that player with someone who has the potential to have the same abilities during his career at West Liberty.”
The Italian-American of the Year
The year was 2004. Robert Gaudio looked around and found there was a chance that the tradition that became the Upper Ohio Valley Italian Heritage Festival could be no more.
A case of embezzlement had threatened the future of the scholarship-giving, three-day event, but Gaudio immediately adopted the, “never-say-die” attitude.
“There was no way I was going to let the festival go away,” Gaudio said. “This festival had done so much good for 20 years, and I was determined to find a way to make it continue.”
And that’s what Gaudio did. He rallied the board members, gained more media attention than usual, and developed some creative marketing strategies to replace the paid advertising. It worked, and the festival celebrated its 31st festival this past summer.
“The Italian Festival has always been a community event, so we depended on the community to help us keep it,” Gaudio explained. “And we still do because the No. 1 objective is to make a little money so we can award the scholarships every year.
“It’s not a ton of money that we offer, but it’s very appreciated by the students when they get it,” he said. “The cost of higher education keeps going up, so every dollar they can earn is a plus.”
Gaudio was elected to the Italian Festival’s Board of Directors in 2000 and later served as the event chairman for six years. He “retired” as chair in 2012, and was named the festival’s Italian-American of the Year in 2014. During the annual dinner held the two evenings before the festival’s ribbon cutting, Gaudio decided he would give it away to as many people as possible.
“Well, they gave it to me, so it was mine, and that means I could give it to anyone I wanted,” he said with a laugh. “In all seriousness, I saw it as an opportunity to appreciate my family, my friends, and the people who have worked very hard to keep the festival going.”
A Self-Made Giver
You know his name. You may even know him.
That’s because Gary E. West is a most friendly gentleman who is often eager to hear another person’s story.
His own story, though, is one he enjoys to avoid.
West is a self-made millionaire thanks to his success with Wheeling-based Valley Welding Supply Co. Although it once was a one-shop operation, West grew the business to 84 locations in 16 different states with annual sales in excess of $250 million after putting himself through West Liberty University.
“I grew up knowing that I was going to have to work hard if I wanted anything in life,” he said. “So that’s what I did, and I always tell young people the same message.
“I was raised by hardworking people, and it was a great example for me people because that meant I didn’t know any other way to accomplish success,” he said. “I knew no one was going to hand me anything for free, and I benefitted from that knowledge for the rest of my life.”
West, a 1958 graduate of West Liberty University, is also president of West Rentals, Inc., President of Plymouth Holding LLC, and GEW Real Estate, LLP, as well as president and secretary of Acetylene Products Corp.
A generous leader and an alumnus that has endowed the Hilltop campus with many gifts, most recently the West Family Stadium, West also is a lifelong supporter of Oglebay Park. In recognition of his ongoing support for higher education and philanthropy, West was selected to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association of Fundraising Professionals Western Pennsylvania Chapter (AFP-WPA) at a special dinner held on Nov. 13, 2014. He is the first West Virginian to be honored in this manner.
West is one of seven individuals and organizations from the region selected for 2014 National Philanthropy Day Awards. The presentation of the award took place at a special dinner held at the John Heinz History Center and was hosted by Randy Baumann of the WDVE Morning Show, a former National Philanthropy Day awardee.
“Gary is the first honoree from the state of West Virginia to achieve this designation. It’s wonderful that this forward thinking businessman, generous donor and friend has been selected for this impressive honor. We thank him again for all he’s done for Oglebay Park, West Liberty University and the entire community,” said Randy Worls, chairman of the Oglebay Foundation, in a press release distributed by the university.
West has invested considerable personal and financial assets in his alma mater, where he earned a degree in business administration. He and his wife, Flip, established the Guy H. and Mary Ann West School of Business Scholarship Endowment, and he has served in the past as chair of WLU’s capital campaign, which he supported with the largest lifetime gift commitment by individuals in the history of the university.
It’s a puzzle.
It’s always been a puzzle.
What can someone living in Wheeling do to make Wheeling a better place to live?
The founders of Weelunk believe this website and the many opportunities it presents to local residents, is what WE can do.
Weelunk offers its readers with a unique chance to read a different perspective than ever offered before in the Friendly City, and also it offers YOU an invitation to add YOUR perspective, as well. WEELUNKERS deepen the coverage offered here. WEELUNKERS amplify Wheeling. WEELUNKERS speak a voice that has been stamped silent for far too long.
“Weelunk has become a great resource for ReInvent Wheeling and the Wheeling National Heritage Area Corp.,” said Jeremy Morris, executive director of WNHAC. “Weelunk is about our community, and it delves into topics that have needed attention.
“Take the recycling program here in Wheeling for an example,” he said. “That’s a topic that has needed addressed for a long time, and now that Weelunk has dug into it, changes will be made to improve it.”
“I believe Weelunk has captured an audience of those who really have invested in this community with their family, careers and homes,” said Wheeling’s Vice Mayor Gene Fahey. “The stories are not passive, yet they create a sense of action and of pride of who we are and the extraordinary efforts of so many.
“In a very short time it has become a Wheeling icon that so many turn to for the full story of what is happening in their community,” he said.
In our first two months, more than 50 individuals have published articles and opinion pieces, and as we move into 2015, we are hoping for many, many more. If becoming a contributor is not the puzzle piece you feel you can offer, we strongly encourage YOU to keep searching. It’s what it is going to take, and the proof can be seen – with opened eyes – throughout the city.
As promised in the beginning, Weelunk will cherish our past here in Wheeling. It’s a glorious history that has impacted our entire country. Wheeling Park High history teacher Ryan Stanton put it this way: “When my students learn the role Wheeling played throughout the history of our country, all of a sudden they believe it’s pretty cool to live here.”
But cherishing is not re-living. Weelunk also represents the future of the Friendly City, and we wish to help provide something of a path to an improved community for today and for tomorrow.