By Steve Novotney
She’s a scientist. She is data-driven.
But Hope Coffield also is a wife, a mother of two, a daughter of two teachers, and a lifelong resident of Wheeling, and she has been an advocate for an improved community for as long as she can recall. Coffield owns backgrounds in geography and freshwater biology. She has been employed by Wheeling Jesuit University, and she has worked with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers.
Today, she is the director of the Wheeling Academy of Law and Science Foundation (WALS), a non-profit organization based in the First State Capitol Building on Eoff Street in downtown Wheeling. WALS, established in 2004 by local attorney Patrick Cassidy, focuses on educational programming and consulting in the areas of education, employment, energy, and the environment to promote local economic opportunity, employment, and job creation in the city of Wheeling and state of West Virginia.
Coffield entered into the position seven months ago, and now that she has successfully navigated a learning curve, she believes the time has arrived for WALS to continue and to grow its mission within the Friendly City community.
“I did have to learn a lot because in this position I have to take care of a lot of details that I had not encountered before in my career. A perfect example is bookkeeping. I had never had to do bookkeeping before now,” she explained. “Now I feel like it’s time for things to get rolling. WALS wants to be about finding solutions for our area’s problems, and then it would become about public education.
“As far as economic development, we know we can learn from the past, and I think it would be important to make sure not all of the profits go to companies that are from outside the area,” she said. “It would be best to have that investment go back into our community.”
Coffield, who is a 1992 graduate of Wheeling Park High School, obtained her undergraduate degree in biology from Wheeling Jesuit in 1996 and her master’s degree in geography from West Virginia University in 2000. Her husband, Jim, is a chemistry professor at WJU, and their children, Maggie and Patrick, attend Wheeling Park High and St. Vincent’s School, respectively.
“We do travel, but as far as Wheeling is concerned, I’ve been here my entire life. Even when I was getting my master’s, I commuted to Morgantown because I was raising my daughter,” she said. “So I have been here for the good things and the bad things.
“I am more optimistic about Wheeling than ever before. There seems to be so many more people who engaged right now,” Coffield said. “People want to help create the future. It’s part of the creative economy we’re seeing here now.”
That is why she possesses a positive attitude about the future of WALS and the future of the First State Capitol Building. Cassidy purchased the structure in 1994, and he has funded interior and exterior renovations since. Office space is available, Coffield said, and currently Cassidy’s law firm, a probation office, a bail bond company, and a court-reporting business join WALS as occupants. A large conference room is frequently utilized by both non-profit organizations and for-profit businesses.
“The owner certainly would be interested in filling the areas that are open at this time. The basement was once a restaurant and could be again, but right now the future use is wide open,” Coffield explained. “There is also a nice space on the third floor of the building that could be utilized by a number of different companies.
“There is a concentration on the downtown area, so I think anything is possible for the areas in our building that are available,” she continued. “Our location allows for a lot of potential. We’re right next to the City-County Building and the courthouse, and we’re very close to several new businesses that could attract more growth in the downtown.
Coffield has continued orchestrating some programs offered by the academy for several years. According the WALS website (http://walswheeling.com/about.php), the foundation offers “…continuing education courses for lawyers (CLEs) and the equivalent for other professionals and also offers educational workshops and presentations on issues of employment, the environment, education, and other areas of community concern. The WALS Foundation can customize educational offerings for private or governmental entities.
“WALS (in collaboration with area resources) offers research and consulting services in the areas of employment, the environment (including efficiency, conservation, and renewables), historic preservation, and other areas covered by the experience and specialization of WALS.”
“The attorneys earn credits for continuing education every two years, and most of the places that offer those classes are in Morgantown, Charleston, and Pittsburgh and sometimes it is difficult for an attorney to take a whole day to travel, spend the time in the classes, and then travel home,” Coffield explained. “What we offer is something our local attorneys can do during their lunch hour. There is a registration fee for those classes, but our prices are much lower than what the other places charge.
“And although our Mock Trial program is no longer funded, we still offer and distribute the information that was used while it was funded,” she said. “What we did before the funding went away was redesign our website and place all of the materials online,” Coffield said. “The scripts, the teacher’s manual, and several other things are now all online, and the materials are made available to every fifth grade teacher in the state, and the state Department of Education continues to promote the program. We know that all of the 11,500 fifth graders participate in the program.”
Coffield has established partnerships that have permitted an expansion to the foundation’s concentration. In cooperation with ReInvent Wheeling and the Wheeling National Heritage Area Corp., WALS hosts a monthly “Green Round Table.”
“We talk about recycling a lot, but we also talk about solar energy, geo-thermal pumps; it’s really about what the group wants to talk about,” Coffield said. “It’s a lot about networking and getting people together that can help each other with a question or situation. We also have a lot of knowledge about certain programs and initiatives, so we are able to share that information, too. We do concentrate on solar because we have a lot of people who are very interested in that form of energy.”
The grand plan, Coffield revealed, is to gage real interest in order to facilitate multiple solar installations in the Wheeling area.
“I think a lot of people want to go solar, but they likely think they can’t afford it. That’s why we are researching the level of interest here because if we get enough, we’ll all get it at a cheaper expense,” she said. “That’s the best way to go about it, and if we get enough, the company offering the best price would just set up shop here because it will be worth it to them, too.
“The technology has been available for several decades, but the cost and the dependence on what’s in place now haven’t allowed for much progress with renewable energies. But that seems to be changing, so WALS will continue researching in cooperation with several other organizations, companies, and individuals to see if we can make a positive difference in this community.”
She is part-time. On the record, she works 20 hours per week, but sweat equity leads her closer to 30 hours per seven days.
Coffield wishes to orchestrate even more growth, and she has planned several events that focus on the most imperative issues facing the Wheeling community. An example is the future showing of “Brothers on the Line,” a film that features the facts behind Wheeling natives Roy, Victor, and Walter Reuther.
“Walter Reuther had the ears of presidents,” Coffield said. “And he helped create the middle class. Far too many people who are under 40 years old do not know this story, so we believe it’s important to tell this story so we can remind local residents.
“I think it’s important to also tell the story about how being from Wheeling helped mold who they were and what they accomplished, and we’ll be able to learn how they did what they did at that time.”
WALS has partnered with WNHAC, the Ohio Valley Trades and Labor Assembly, the United Auto Workers, and Oglebay Institute to offer three free showings at the Towngate Theatre on April 10-12. Coffield will welcome Sasha Reuther, son of Victor, to Wheeling, and following the Saturday afternoon showing (April 11), a question-and-answer session will take place with local historians Dr. David Javersak and Dr. Hal Gorby.
“We also plan to have an open house in our very small but hopefully growing Walter Reuther Library in the basement of this building,” Coffield said. “What we would like to do is support research that is data-driven and not partisan in any way.
“What we hope to do using that research is address problems with local solutions like unemployment and under-employment while being specific to our region,” she said. “We want to address all things involving economic development in this area. Everyone wants to see this area grow more and more.”
Entrepreneurialism, Coffield said, has reappeared in Wheeling the past couple of years after the mindset apparently skipped a generation.
“I grew up in this area and it never occurred to me that I could start my own business, but I think that’s changing now. I don’t know why my generation didn’t think like that because we know the generation before us did,” she said. “I think of folks who around my age (40) were likely the first members of their family to go to college, so I’m sure that played into it. I’m sure our parents thought our lives would be better than theirs after going to four-year school, so that was the push – ‘Go to college.’
“But that has changed, and my gut feeling is that part of it concerns the fact that being an employee who’s putting all our efforts in the success of a business doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll end up OK in the long run,” Coffield said. “Cause and effect. The people always react, and that’s what is happening in Wheeling right now.”
This scientist sees potential, and if her work for the WALS Foundation leads to full-time employment, Coffield would be pleased because it would mean her efforts have been embraced by the community she is attempting to help. She has long-term plans and a vision that includes more interaction with local high school and college students as well as adult community members.
“I would like to see us get past the seminar-type programs and acquire the necessary funding to become a little research center,” Coffield explained. “I would like to see fellowship programs for our local students, and I know companies fund these kinds of programs in other communities around the country. Local students could partner with local non-profits that have research questions that they want to look at.
“Anything can happen, and we do want to maintain a focus on this region,” she said. “I have backgrounds in geography and freshwater biology/ecology, so I see connections everywhere.”
(Photography by Steve Novotney)