It’s been referred to as a number of different things.
The “game changer.” The “difference maker.” The “cracker plant of downtown Wheeling.”
And, well, as “new.”
The Health Plan Headquarters, nearly complete within the 1100 block of the Friendly City downtown area, is the first privately funded, new-building construction project in the district since the mid-1980s, but the biggest difference between the two involves the number of employees. When the Boury brothers cut the ribbon for the new Boury Center at 1233 Main St. in 1986, the offices and cubicles were filled with folks who moved about 200 feet from a much older structure.
But when The Health Plan begins operations, approximately 400 new people will begin traveling to and working in downtown Wheeling.
“The day The Health Plan opens, we will all see an increase in the foot traffic in the downtown area, and that’s because those new employees will be making their way to local eateries and to the retail shops that we now have in that area,” explained Kurt Zende, economic development specialist for the city of Wheeling as well as the manager of Centre Market. “And I do believe that we will see a few businesses open in the downtown, too because of the influx in the density of people that will be coming into work at The Health Plan.
“They have to go somewhere for their goods and services, and my hope is that a lot of those people, no matter where they may live, will simply find it more convenient to do those things close to where they work,” he continued. “I believe this is another one of those stepping stones with the creation of a new downtown district for the city of Wheeling, and there are a lot of plans already in place to improve the experience in that business district.”
Along with The Health Plan, lawmakers of West Virginia also approved an increase in historical tax credit from 10 percent to 25 percent, and that development has Zende’s phone ringing more frequently than in the past.
“As far as I am concerned, the level of interest concerning developers has been off the charts. In the past several months, I have been busier than ever as far as meeting with those potential buyers to show them the building inventory that is available right now,” Zende reported. “The city does own six buildings in the downtown, and there are several more that are available for purchase, and now that the state Legislature has increased the historic tax credits to the same level as those are in Ohio and Pennsylvania, I expect developers will step in and take advantage of those opportunities.
“I know I have been receiving three or four more calls per week ever since that legislation passed, and those developers are very interested in the buildings in downtown and also in the area of Centre Market,” he said. “That’s one of several reasons why I remain very optimistic for the future.”
Colaianni Construction was selected as the general contractor for the construction of The Health Plan office building, and local trades were employed, including the carpenters, pipefitters, ironworkers, masons, painters, sheet metal workers, and the operators. Scott Mazzulli, co-chair for Project Best, believes it’s only the beginning concerning economic development in the Northern Panhandle of the Mountain State.
“The Health Plan headed to downtown Wheeling is a really big deal for everyone in this area,” Mazzulli said. “The leadership of the company was insistent that quality contractors were the people who constructed it, and that’s because they realize that local labor always brings in the jobs on time and under budget.
“Because The Health Plan made the decision to use local craftsmen with the local labor organization in this area, they’ve helped make this area thrive,” he said. “This new development will be a game changer for Wheeling’s downtown area because, when the headquarters opens, this area will see an additional 400-plus people looking for something to eat, something to buy, and something to do. The hope of the people involved with Project Best is that this will lead to even more coming to downtown Wheeling.”
The labor leader realizes there are a lot of “what ifs” connected to the possible construction of an ethane cracker plant in the Dilles Bottom area of Belmont County, and that is why he is anxiously awaiting the final decision from officials of PTT Global.
“I am very optimistic about the cracker plant because of the amount of time the company has taken to do their due diligence, so if the answer is yes, they will build it; I think the positive impacts will extend to both sides of the Ohio River,” Mazzulli said. “There are a lot of good, older buildings in downtown Wheeling that could be re-developed into office space because, if that is the situation, there will be many companies moving into the area because that’s the nature of the petrochemical industry.”
Quality of Life
With the opening of The Health Plan come those 400-plus jobs, most of which are filled now but will add in the future to the number of living-wage employment positions in the downtown area alone. The insurance company is soon to join OVMC, Wesbanco Bank, Williams Lea and Tag, and the international law firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe as some of the largest employers in the Friendly City.
The expected ripple effects include the broadening of the tax bases for both the city and Ohio County, an opportunity to retain more of the city’s younger citizens, and the chance for natives and newcomers to reverse the trend of population declines that has been evident for decades.
Plus, the $10 million streetscaping planned for Main and Markets streets, which is an 80-20 partnership between the city of Wheeling the state’s Division of Highways, will improve a pedestrian’s experience while trekking the downtown area.
“It’s really going to be wonderful to watch all of that energy return to the streets of downtown Wheeling,” said local writer and artist Cheryl Harshman. “I am old enough to recall when all of the buildings in our downtown were full with businesses and employees. There was that buzz, and I believe The Health Plan opening will help bring back that buzz.
“This is the next step, I believe, and I am especially excited about The Health Plan because of one of my biggest pieces of art will be hanging in the lobby when it opens for business,” she said. “I think that serves as an example of the new opportunities that are soon to come to this city, and not only for our local artists.”
Erika Donaghy is a member of the Wheeling Arts and Cultural Commission, a group that has proven very instrumental with the beautification of several areas of the Friendly City. Ever since former Mayor Andy McKenzie announced the coming of The Health Plan Headquarters to the downtown, she has allowed herself to imagine what impact she and the commission can offer as far as improving a person’s impression of this once-bustling business district.
“With the influx of new people coming to work here in the downtown, it’s my belief that this is the beginning of the renaissance we’ve all been waiting for here in Wheeling,” she said. “They will have to eat, so for places like the Vagabond Kitchen and places within walking distance, I think this is going to be huge for those businesses already in place.
“And I hope the Arts Commission can work with everyone involved so we can bring some of the art that we have placed in the Centre Market area to the downtown area,” Donaghy continued. “I’d love for us to be involved with making the downtown more inviting than it is today. I know when I drive through the downtown, I want to see vibrancy and beauty, and now there are more reasons for us to make those things happen.”
Donaghy admits she owns high expectations, but at the same time she is confident the city’s decision makers will take advantage of the opportunities that will transpire in the not-too-distant future.
“I am; I’m really excited,” she said. “And I have been seeing little things pop up here and there because of the optimism that is alive and well now in this city, and I am a believer that we will see more and more in the near future.
“I also feel there will be more support for the arts because people are going to want to experience the same things I hope to experience in the future,” Donaghy added. “Maybe we will see some more nightlife and more retail and more food options, and it’s my hope that we can all work together to make the downtown area the best it can be.”
(Photos by Steve Novotney)