You forget his age and how youthful he appears when you hold conversations with Jake Dougherty.
A 2008 graduate of The Linsly School and a member of the Class of 2012 from American University, Dougherty is now 26 years old. But you can’t tell, and the Wheeling Heritage Board of Directors agreed when naming him the new executive director.
That’s because the knowledge takes over. Commercial and residential preservation, community engagement, historical values, and fertile environments for development are a few of his favorite topics, and Dougherty is confident he can lead Wheeling Heritage on the organization’s mission of playing a key role in the revitalization of the Friendly City.
“Jake is poised, bright, and hardworking, with a clear vision for Wheeling Heritage,” stated Board Chairman Arch Riley Jr. in a press release distributed by the organization. “Under his leadership, Reinvent Wheeling formalized its structure and increased its capacity by becoming a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization with a board of directors, and was designated as a Main Street program by the National Main Street Center.
“Jake is all about community engagement; he knows how to build relationships and identify resources for Wheeling’s continued renewal,” Riley said. “He will work very well with the new mayor and City Council to further preservation and community development.”
And it all began this past week, ironically, with an experience that left Dougherty relatively speechless.
“It’s been a very humbling experience since the announcement was made public. A lot of people reached out to congratulate me, and that meant a lot to me,” Dougherty said. “I’m really excited because Wheeling Heritage is a great organization that has accomplished a lot to improve the city of Wheeling.
“Wheeling Heritage has always had great leadership and a great staff,” he continued. “Chris Villamagna and Rebekah Karelis have been with Wheeling Heritage for a number of years, and each of them is very involved with our community. It’s going to be an honor working with them because of the incredible success they’ve experienced.”
Wheeling Heritage, founded in 1994 as the Wheeling National Heritage Area Cooperation, owns an office on the third floor of the Wheeling Artisan Center on the corner of 14th and Main streets in the downtown district. The organization invested $6 million in Heritage Port and the Robert C. Byrd Intermodal Transportation Center and has granted more than $450,000 to local organizations. The Capitol Theatre also has been a focus as well as the former Wheeling Stamping Building, a structure that currently houses the international law firm of Orrick, Sutcliffe & Herrington.
Initially, though, it was Dougherty who sought out and discovered Wheeling Heritage before the organization’s original executive director, Hydie Friend, retired in 2011.
“It is an organization that I have a bit of history with ever since I was in college. That’s when I had made the decision that I wanted to have a positive impact on Wheeling,” Dougherty explained. “I always believed that Wheeling had a ton of potential, and that’s why I wanted to come back here and intern with Wheeling Heritage in 2009 under the executive director at the time, Hydie Friend.
“My focus that summer was to focus on the Capitol Theatre, and I thoroughly enjoyed the work, so I came back again the next summer and continued working on the improvements at the theatre,” he said. “After college I had decided to stay in the Washington, D.C., area to work there, but then I had the chance to come back for the position of director of ReInvent Wheeling and focus on downtown development.”
Since Dougherty has worked at a rapid pace that has included the introduction of “Show of Hands,” a crowd-funding event that occurs four times each year; workshops for local entrepreneurs and small business owners; and an arts roundtable conversation. In December 2015, Jeremy Morris resigned as Wheeling Heritage’s executive director, and the board named historian Jeanne Finstein as the interim director, and that’s when the search began.
“The search committee conducted a national search, and after that I met with the executive committee of the board, and then finally there was an interview with the full board,” Dougherty explained. “I know they had a number of resumes from people living all over the country, and I know they considered a lot of impressive individuals.
“Going into it I thought I might be intimidated by the questions they would ask me, but having the experience I had with Wheeling Heritage really helped me with those interviews. I know the topics, and I know the work that has been done, so I felt I was ready to be grilled,” he continued. “But here we are today, so it was a great process.”
And now the work begins, and immediately on Dougherty’s plate is finding a new director for ReInvent Wheeling.
“That process likely will begin soon, and we also have to look at how that program will move forward,” Dougherty said. “In the meantime I will fill both roles for a bit, and Jeanne is going to stay on board for a while to help me transition into the executive director role.
“I do think we need to conduct some evaluations and look at the whole organization first before we move too quickly in filling that position,” he said. “But ReInvent Wheeling is here to stay now that the merger with Wheeling Heritage has taken place, so I am looking forward to finding the right person for that position.”
It is the role that Wheeling Heritage plays in the Friendly City that is primary with Dougherty, and he has pledged to continue with projects such as the restoration of Mount Wood Cemetery, a burial ground atop Wheeling Hill, where many of the city’s history-making citizens are laid to rest, and to add the Mount Wood Overlook to the organization’s restoration and preservation list.
“It’s always been so clear to me that Wheeling Heritage is an incredible organization, and it’s a unique organization because there are only 49 national heritage areas throughout the country,” he explained. “Since it was founded, Wheeling Heritage has partnered with several institutions like RED (the Regional Economic Development Partnership) and the Wheeling Convention & Visitors Bureau to make many important projects happen in Wheeling.
“We touch a lot of different aspects here, including arts and recreation and building preservation, and that’s exciting to me. It makes for an exciting time and an exciting job, so I am thrilled to have this opportunity,” Dougherty continued. “And now that the board has made their decision and the announcement has been made, it’s time for me to get to work.”
Another goal, Dougherty said, is to help foster an environment in which economic developers may flourish.
“I think Wheeling Heritage has a particularly interesting position in the economic and community development landscape, and as a 501(c)(3) we have the opportunity to accept grants, and we also have a history of administering grants,” Dougherty explained. “We also have great relationships at the state and national levels, so what I can see us doing is playing a key role with shaping an enabling environment for development.
“So what are we doing to incentivize development? What are we doing to increase those incentives that property owners in Wheeling can use to preserve their properties? A lot of times there’s an education side to that, and there’s also a skill side to that,” he continued. “There are also some policies and some other resources that I believe we can deliver. Wheeling Heritage has historically been very good at that although it’s not been the primary mission of the organization.”
Dougherty also recognizes the fact that many of the city’s older residential properties are owned by residents who may not be able to continue maintaining the properties, and he also hopes to address that population to offer similar assistance.
“We have a lot more to learn about those situations, and I think we need to buckle down and focus on those situations,” he said. “Right now, in Wheeling, we have 11 historic districts, and I believe we will be adding more. We’ve already completed some of the work on South Wheeling, and we’ll be looking at Warwood in the near future.
“That will provide additional resources to the folks in those historic districts,” Dougherty explained. “But what I think we really need to do is change how preservation takes place at times. In many cases, preservation is relatively reactive, and we need to be a little better than that. We need to be looking further ahead and provide a better environment for our residents to do what they can do comfortably.”
The process begins with two activities, Dougherty insisted, and they are community engagement and education.
“A lot of people are not aware how to start to do something historically, and there is sometimes a misperception that it costs a lot more to do something historically. And yes, sometimes it does cost more,” the executive director said. “So how can we step in to help our residents overcome those challenges? Offering the information is the beginning, and we have some great preservation groups in the city that are very active. We need to figure how to get everyone together to allow that progress to take place.
“But we have been successful with engaging the community and, ‘Show of Hands’ is a perfect example,” Dougherty added. “So many people have come forward to present great ideas for small-business development, we have corporate support thanks to Orrick, and hundreds of community members have made the decision to attend those events. That should prove something to all of us, and that’s that the people of our community want to be involved to make the city of Wheeling the best place it can be.”
(Photos by Steve Novotney)