Remaking Wheeling: Are You All In?

Straight out of the gate(way to the West) I should be clear on a few things:
1) Wheeling is fantastic. Right now, as is, fantastic.
2) Wheeling is in one the most extraordinary times of its history. Think that’s an overstatement? Read: Extra. Ordinary. As in going beyond the usual, the standard, commonplace. The bad habit of thinking decline was our only option is over. Wheeling is rising.
3) I pride myself on never having an agenda, but with these words I do hope to influence your thinking and motivate your actions. So buckle-up. By words’ end I will ask you to trade your passenger’s seatbelt for a climbing harness to participate in Wheeling’s ascent.

Let’s start with a stroll at either end of Market, Main, Water, or Chapline; it doesn’t matter because all the streets are lined with healthy, untopped street trees, two-way streets, and extra-wide sidewalks on both sides with strategic (but limited) on-street parking and local businesses providing services, food, beverages, fun, commodities, and unique wares. The façades are clean, freshly painted, highlighted with well-maintained lighting, sympathetic signage and awnings. Many destinations have outdoor seating and small plantings. We’re strolling on a sunny Saturday perusing the Downtown District All-In Community Sidewalk Sale, which is in full swing. We ditched the car in the free parking garage and let the looping trolley drop us off at our preferred starting spot, where we met up with our friends who walked and biked from their homes in North, Center, East Wheeling, and the Island. The Island friends walked across The Bridge. We go from one end of town to the other and include a stop to see the two new exhibits at the Wheeling Heritage Center — mostly because we love how the rotating exhibit is always such a fun mix of old and new objects, artifacts and new art combined together — so we can understand how the past informs the present. We love the cool building it’s in and that it used to be something else and is now completely renovated & repurposed. We hit the locally owned grocery on the corner in the middle of town before we head to the upper floor of our friends’ loft on Main to freshen up. We’re headed to dinner and an entertaining night at our new favorite restaurant on the Waterfront.

Montreal - Saint Catherine Street - by Eric Sehr
Montreal – Saint Catherine Street – by Eric Sehr

So maybe you think I’m nuts? That’s OK. You don’t’ have to believe that this is all not only possible, but completely doable. Just go here: Greenville, South Carolina; or here: Paducah, Kentucky; or here: Chattanooga, Tennessee. Oh, and don’t forget: Akron, Pittsburgh, among many others. Check out Austin and Indianapolis to name a few that have revitalized their communities based on their art, culture, and architectural assets. These places were Us. You, Me, Us, We, Everyone who cares for Wheeling. But these places and others like Buffalo, Rochester, Birmingham, not only were Us, but in many cases were worse. Loss of industry, population, and economic decline with complicated social, educational, and environmental issues abounding. And now these places are the model of reinvention, rehabilitation, renovation, restoration, remaking, repurposing, recycling, relocation, and reinvestment. It’s taken 10, 20, 30+ years, but it happened. And, it’s happening now, right here in our beloved Wheeling. Have you seen it yet?

Maybe you haven’t or you doubt it, but it’s here. When I moved back in 1998, Wheeling was a lonely place for a young architect who loved her city, could see all her potential, and couldn’t figure out how to tell her hometown and all of her friendly kinfolk, ”Don’t you know how beautiful you are? How special and wonderful you are? How unique and admirable and stunning you are, my fair and lovely Friendly City?” But she (the City) didn’t know, couldn’t see it, and she kept looking in that full-length, rearview mirror reflecting the past, convinced the glory was over.

Credit: Citizen Photographers of Wheeling
Credit: Citizen Photographers of Wheeling

In time, she started to hear the whispers in her ear and the efforts being made to say “You matter. You’re important. You’re worth it, dear City, our best asset.” The singular whispers have now grown to a collective chorus shouting from the rooftops “Wheelove you, Wheeling!” For that chorus, I am so grateful, not only for the singing, but for the doing and for what’s already been done: partnerships for redevelopment between public entities and private property owners, program administrators, grant funders, foundations and even civically-minded churches. See: The Capitol Theatre, Wheeling Heritage Port, Wheeling Artisan Center, Orrick GOC and a host of other Center/Downtown Wheeling locales such as WVNCC Campus, The Stones Center, Wheeling Suspension Bridge, The First Capitol Building, and Independence Hall. Money has been invested. Buildings occupied. Businesses expanding. Campuses growing. Cultural activities attended. Waterfront and trails highly frequented. People returning. People relocating. People staying. This is real. This is happening. Thank you. Wheeling is rising, and it is a sight to see. This is an extraordinary transformation of reinvention.

Wheeling is remaking itself one block, one building, one business, one resident at a time. Just as Wheeling became a “place” because of revolutionary invention (See: Ft. Henry, The Suspension Bridge, the Steamboat, the making of Steel, Coal, Nails and everything else), Wheeling is reinventing itself not to what it once was, but to something different. Something even better. Why better? Because this time we’re doing it on our own with the people who are connected and committed to Wheeling now, living near or far. We’re going ‘All In’ by our own boot straps. This is better than before because it will be sustainable. Reinvented Wheeling is founded and anchored in people who are already committed to Wheeling for the long-term. There are folks who have gone “All In” already. There are folks who are going ‘All In’ right now. And we need more of Us to go “All In” as we keep moving forward.

Credit: Citizen Photographers of Wheeling
Credit: Citizen Photographers of Wheeling

We need your help partnering, committing, financing, negotiating, policy-making, preserving, restoring, building new and re-envisioning our transforming city. We need you to help reinvent Wheeling by deciding to be less risk-adverse, less focused on the traditional formulas for R.O.I. (Return On Investment) and to believe and know we don’t’ need to wait for the outside folk of corporate America to come here in order for Wheeling to be successful or even think we’re successful.

Wheeling needs Us to remember we didn’t get the word “West” in our address by waiting on the evaluation and judgment of assumed power brokers from distant lands. No. We went out and birthed ourselves right into existence. Hello, Independence Hall. Downtown. Wheeling. WEST. Virginia.

Montani Semper Liberi. 1861-1863, thank you very much.

The Frontiersmen, the wilderness pioneers, the Mountaineers, the fighters on the old western front, the volunteers who served in all the wars after, the homesteaders, the Wheeling Convention(eers), the steamboat captains, the merchants, the miners, the iron forgers, the steelworkers, the nail makers who built this incredible place on their backs, we must continue to act on their example. Collectively reinventing Wheeling, climbing together, urban pioneering, ascending as one, this is who we are, who we must continue to be, and who we need our partners to be.

Credit: Citizen Photographers of Wheeling
Credit: Citizen Photographers of Wheeling

Wheeling needs a lot of yesses. Yes to doing new things. Yes to seeing things a different way. Yes to new approaches. Yes to a holistic vision and actions created with input from all. Yes to unique partnerships. Yes to restructuring of budgets and priorities, if need be.

Let me be specific, but in no specific order:

Financial Institutions (including the Trust Departments):

  • Decide to be less risk-adverse. Just for this, do it together with all the banks in town. We’ll make a special fund for lending, low or no interest loans, matching grants and more, so the risk will be shared by everyone.
  • Give reasonable (but likely non-standard) mortgages and financing for people buying homes in East/North/South/Center/Downtown and Wheeling Island.
  • Suspend your standard requirements for R.O.I. — the return will come, but it may be on a longer timeframe.

Property Owners (who haven’t yet):

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  • Please, get your buildings gussied up like you’re going on a first date. Even if your building is unoccupied.
  • Repair or replace your roofs so they are water tight. Replace your awnings, light your storefronts, paint the exterior, especially the main façade. Shovel or sweep your sidewalks often and plant/pot flowers.
  • Get ready. Be prepared. Please.

The City of Wheeling (our governing body and greatest partner in all these efforts):

  • Promote creative financing opportunities and partnerships with existing and new property owners to achieve the list above, as well as unique loan/grant programs and tax incentives to entice entrepreneurs to locate in Wheeling.
  • Decide to enact a moratorium on demolition of structures. Devote those resources to building stabilizations.
  • Enact progressive zoning ordinances and urban planning policies that promote Smart Growth and sustainable development of a robust downtown central core, focused on pedestrian/bicycle use in lieu of vehicular traffic. Construct the zoning code in a way that welcomes outside businesses, but on the terms that are best suited to the distinctive character and place that is Wheeling. Those folks will need to fit into our plan, not the other way around, and we will have expectations of them for a dependable commitment to Wheeling.
  • Revamp everything that has anything to do with traffic and parking on/off street/garages (metering too), including policies, properties, and processes. Turn one-way streets back to two-way streets with reduced speed limits.  Expand bike lanes on streets and the Heritage Trail system.
  • Repeal the specific City of Wheeling ordinance from 1981 that exceeds the national building and fire safety codes, eliminating the option for single means of egress (exiting) as can be permitted by the codes under certain parameters in other locales.
  • Join a coalition of other W.Va. cities to initiate and negotiate an addition to the W.Va. State Fire Code for a new specific category for mid-rise buildings between 40- and 75-feet in height to allow greater flexibility in providing safe, code-compliant renovated buildings. (See: Pittsburgh, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and every other city that deals with existing mid and high rise structures in urban areas).
  • Commit to a comprehensive curb-side recycling program.
  • Nuisance bars: go on offense and use every asset and legal option available to eliminate these scourges on our community. It has been accomplished in several cases before within our city limits.
Credit: Citizen Photographers of Wheeling
Credit: Citizen Photographers of Wheeling

Citizen Wheeling (Oh how I love you; you’re one of the biggest reasons why I returned and stayed.):

  • I’m speaking from experience here; you’re outstanding. My goodness, how you give and keep caring over and over. But, I do need to make a special request. That warm, giving friendliness that you do so well, would you extend it a bit farther? You might be thinking: “Really, I already do that? And you do, but we need more. I learned something really difficult when I lived in another city with friendly people. As friendly and nice as the people were, they had a habit of being friends with the friends they already had (or family that they spent most of their time with). So it wasn’t that they weren’t friendly. It was just that they forgot to extend themselves beyond their usual circle of people. I can make friends with a tree, but that little place was often lonely.
  • Here’s your charge: There are new folks moving here, and they won’t be able to spend all of their holidays with family here or wherever the “there” is. So invite them to join yours, especially for holidays of all types and do it early and often. Help them find the babysitters, the good mechanics, and the best routes to take on the back roads. We must consider ourselves at all times the welcoming committee and ambassadors of Wheeling.
  • Invite them over for crappy dinners; don’t be shy; toss the entertaining rule book out and just connect!

The Naysayers (I’d say “thanks for your input,” but that would be disingenuous of me. Instead I’ll say, “If you can’t say something nice, then please don’t say anything at all.”):

  • I once heard someone say, “Behind every meanness is a hurt.” What happened in the past hurt you, and you’re sad about it, frustrated perhaps and for good reason. I offer this promise to you; we’re working to repair, rebuild, restore and reinvent Wheeling for everyone and in some ways especially for you. Everyone is welcome in the tent. A special note about the tent: We are nothing if we are not inclusive. We must do everything possible and proactive to eliminate disenfranchisement in all forms: economic, ethnic, religious, and all the rest. The Friendly City must not be a hyperbole.

State of West Virginia (our other governing partner):

  • Be generous in your grant request approvals and your budget allocations for Wheeling.
  • Devote specific efforts, focus, and funding to tourism in Downtown Wheeling.
  • Revamp the traffic patterns through and around North/South/Center/Downtown Wheeling. Return the one-way streets to two-way streets and convert as many stoplight intersections to four-way stop sign locations. Lower the speed limit from North to South Wheeling, particularly on Main and Market Streets. Downtown Wheeling must be returned to pedestrians who will be lingering and enjoying themselves on our new sidewalk cafes. Truck, and other maximized efficiently moving traffic, is no longer appropriate for Main and Market streets.
  • Be willing to negotiate and revise the W.Va. State Fire Code to be more creative and sympathetic to renovating building, specifically for 40- to 75-foot, mid-high rise structures for the good of the growth of all the cities of W.Va. This is one of the main issues stifling growth across our entire Mountain State. We all want safe, code-compliant buildings, but we need to find innovative ways to achieve those goals, that are not cost prohibitive to property owners who are willing to reinvest in our communities.
  • Protect, preserve and maintain the Aetnaville Bridge currently scheduled for demolition in fall 2015. (See tourism comment above. This bridge is a primary connector for the Wheeling Heritage Trail and other bike/walking trails in East Ohio and beyond.)
  • Adopt progressive, inclusive renewable energy policies and tax incentives for solar, wind, and other renewable energies for commercial, industrial and residential applications.

Private Individuals, Families and Foundations (Some of you have known me since I was born or shortly thereafter, but some I’ve never met; I look forward to meeting you soon):

  • This is a special request. Consider it my personal plea to appeal to your demonstrated love of Wheeling. Your names and your families’ names are on our buildings and our street signs; they are the namesakes of our neighborhoods and the institutions we’ve all benefited from. Thank you. You helped make Wheeling come into being and to prosper. In turn, Wheeling helped you prosper and sustain your families. You’ve quietly been about the business of caring for Wheeling by supporting our cultural gems, educational opportunities, our most vulnerable neighbors, and our churches. Thank you. Would you be willing to step out a little further? Perhaps even publicly and go “All In”? Would you be willing to give more than you’ve already planned? Would you be willing to forgo a traditional “Return on Investment” for a “Return on Love”?
  • Need more convincing? Things are different now; of this I am certain. Wheeling truly is in an extraordinary time. Whatever you think or know has happened to date, know this: Like no other time in our history, we are in it together. That is what has changed. We’re all understanding that a well-planned Wheeling that fosters a vibrant, strong, locally based central business district where we can live, work. and play is in all of our collective best interests. We’re setting aside provincial interests, collaborating in new ways, and focused like a laser on doing everything we can to collectively reinvent Wheeling into a new prosperity. We need your support in all ways, your partnerships, your influence, your connections, your ability to bring others in, your willingness to contribute monetarily and your decision that a financial return is not as important as a return on community, on that love.

To me, you, Us, We (The Wheelovers near and far, the Ex-Pats waiting to come back and the ones who can’t):

  • A reminder now for when things get a bit farther along, Wheeling is doing this. It’s happening. This is going to take time. Wheeling needs Us to stick with it. It may take more time, more effort, more money, more resources, more property, more partnerships, more negotiations. Did I mention more time? But it will all come. We’ll find the money, the property, the risk takers, all the right pieces. Just keep going, moving, pursuing, the never-giving-upping and the never-believing-of-the-lie-of-limits. It’s all possible.

I know what I’ve written here – dreams and pie-in-the-sky that some may try to pick apart. But it’s my nature to think and envision, to not believe the lie of limitations. Blame it on being an optimist or more likely going at this architecting thing for 25 years. It’s in my blood, and I’ve gone “All In.”

I’m a daughter of Woodsdale, of Wheeling, of West “By God” Virginia, and I love Wheeling for everything and everyone that make her special. I see her in her glory, as she is now, and as she is yet to come. Let there be no doubt; we all love Wheeling. But let me be clear; love is an action.

So trade your seatbelt in, grab your climbing harness and “Climb on.” Wheeling is Sending. Wheeling is Rising. Wheeling is Remaking. Wheeling is ReInventing. Will you climb with me?

We need all of Us doing everything we can, together.

Will you go “All In”?

Credit: Citizen Photographers of Wheeling
Credit: Citizen Photographers of Wheeling

Wendy Scatterday, AIA is an architect and sole-proprietor of Scatterday Architecture in Wheeling, West Virginia, as well as the Treasurer of Wheeling Heritage.

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