DOWNTOWN DO-OVER: Connors ‘Cornering’ the Market Nora Edinger June 15, 2020 Editor’s note: In this occasional series, Weelunk has looked at downtown’s re-development — from the biggest catalysts to block-by-block changes. In today’s post, we tighten the focus further to one re-developer and his unit-by-unit vision for a revived city center. If what is happening all over downtown Wheeling could be bottled, it might very well smell of new carpet. That is the overpowering scent on a hot, late-spring day as businessman-turned-developer Dean Connors bounds from room to room, stairway to stairway through a handful of apartment units he is working up at the corner of Market and 11th streets. Walk out of the apartments and right on to the Market Plaza. “He can play guitar here. He could put his bed there,” Connors says, pointing to various spots in a part of a smallish unit that could serve as both living room and bedroom. Zipping through a kitchen area that’s already outfitted with a table that can fold away when not in use, he’s now pointing at a small room in the very back. “Or, he could put his bed in here.” The smaller room is destined for a washer/dryer unit — a rare prize for many renters — but it’s possible to imagine it also serving as a minimalist bedroom. Connors already knows the mid-20s guy who will soon be living in the space that happily overlooks criss-crossed Edison lights on the pedestrian plaza below. He has since booked two more of the same clientele for other units, with still other apartments merely a cabinet or two short of being move-in ready. Realizing many younger Millennials and the newly fledged leading edge of Gen Z cannot afford trendy apartments such as those found at Boury Lofts or the Stone Center — which is literally a few buildings away — Connors planned his units for that market niche from the get-go. They will run $700 to $800 a month, less than half of what some downtown dwellings now go for. “That’s not what I do,” Connors said of working on the higher-finish and bigger-rent end. He noted his own daughters are in his targeted age bracket, one of them being almost a prototype renter. She is both a college student and a food-service worker. The lower finish/lower rent means fresh paint over repaired plaster rather than all-new drywall, he explained. It means the occasional claw foot tub rather than a shower unit. It means he’s doing as much of the work on his own as possible — leaving his primary business in the hands of employees at times so that he can paint, patch, hang curtains. It also means whimsy, he noted. Each unit is different to the point of quirkiness. One stairway inexplicably includes a fruit-themed plaster feature. One doorway is concealed behind a bookcase. (Connors calls it the Scooby-Do door, in reference to a vintage cartoon full of mysterious, often haunted houses.) A mid-hallway panel hides a safe. A massive closet includes an equally large view of the Plaza on Market. Newly renovated kitchen. Some rooms will be fitted with new showers while others will get new claw foot tubs. Quirky details give these rooms a peronsality of their own. “Wow! I had never noticed that until just now,” he exclaims when rounding one corner and realizing what looked like an architectural flourish is actually a cabinet. “I’m always discovering something new.” LIKE EATING POPCORN The apartments are only the half of it. Literally. Seven of the dozen or so units Connors owns are set aside for business rather than housing. All but one are already filled. The bottom floors of four buildings that form an “L” at Market and 11th streets are home to Mmm…Popcorn, Ohio Valley Mixed Martial Arts and a law firm. The location bodes well for such efforts and a bevy of restaurants in other micro-neighborhood storefronts, he said. The area is near Stone Center and The Health Plan, both of which have large numbers of employees. Stone Center additionally has a significant number of rental units that increases the immediate population. Another three-story building Connors owns on Chapline Street — which most recently housed a potter and which he considers his crown jewel — now houses three social service agencies. “There are two years of my life and about $100,000 in that building, and it’s just beautiful,” he said of the Chapline Street property. “It’s called the Kaylex Building now. That’s for my daughters’ names. It’s hard to name a building. People keep asking me, ‘What are you going to call it?’ I’m like, ‘It’s not a baby.’” But it kind of is. Connors, whose primary business involves ATMs and the devices that read cards at retail establishments, was sitting at the former Ye Olde Alpha restaurant about five years ago when the idea of becoming a re-developer was born. Two friends on either side of him were literally talking past him, contemplating buying and restoring a downtown property. The two other men ultimately decided they didn’t want that kind of hassle late in their careers, but Connors sat there thinking, “Why didn’t you ask me?” He couldn’t let it go, although his attention turned to the Mmm…Popcorn building on Market Street rather than the one under discussion. That property acquired and fully leased for both the popcorn business and two apartment units, Connors was hooked. Assisted in the paperwork by his brother, Realtor Scott Connors, Connors has since purchased the entire northwest corner of Market and 11th streets. The parcel is tucked into the Plaza on Market and an 11th Street pedestrian plaza that is in final stages of streetscaping. In keeping with the plaza style and that of the nearby Horne Building exterior, Connors is planning a façade upgrade that will give the corner a look that is both unified and complementary to surrounding buildings. There is still some visible blight in every direction though, he acknowledged. A Main Street building looms in full sight of Market Street, its back open to the elements and allegedly waiting a teardown. On the other side of Market, a strip of businesses is in full swing — Tacoholics, Tito’s Sloppy Doggs, a hair salon, a CBD store — but there are some façade oddities, gaps left by teardowns and other buildings in need of restoration dotting the overall landscape. Connors is not deterred. “Ten years ago, whether it was here or Centre Market or various other parts of the city, if you just stopped and took a picture … the general feeling was pretty dark and gray. Today, there’s a lot of excitement.” That excitement is what keeps him motivated, he said. Every day, he’s anticipating downtown’s future. GENERATIONAL TRANSFER What captured his attention that day in Ye Olde Alpha was a mix of nostalgia for the downtown of his childhood and a feeling of responsibility to a city his family has called home since 1865. “If we don’t save this now, who will?” he asked. “The next generation won’t care about it the same way. My kids didn’t see a movie downtown, and they never went to G.C. Murphy.” And, already having established a business of his own, he knew such re-development doesn’t just happen. “(I’ve) gotten tired of people saying what ‘they’ should do.” He’s not alone. Connors sees a growing group of business and civic leaders who are working together up and down a re-development ladder. Players like Regional Economic Development are pulling in businesses like Orrick, an international law firm that is one of the largest employers in downtown. “They’re (RED) swimming in the big pool. I am in the small pool and, sometimes, the medium-sized pool.” He noted that the business owners themselves — the ones leasing commercial space in all these re-developing buildings — are another critical part of the mix. He pointed to the businesses that are already open on Market Street, such as Mmm…Popcorn or Tito’s Sloppy Doggs. “When people look in … and they’re shaking their heads, looking at these buildings, they’re not seeing that there are businesses here right now. People are making a living — right here.” Dean Connors, a long-time businessman who has turned his attention to small-scale re-development in the downtown. That includes him, he noted. He said his primary business, located in the Mull Center on Main Street, is doing well. So are the re-developments, he said. “We are cash positive in every building I have, including the brand new building that I just bought.” The five buildings that he owns have about a dozen units – an even mix of commercial and residential. Nearly all are now leased and the remaining ones are in various stages of renovation. “If I post something is available on Facebook, I know I have to set aside some time to deal with the responses,” he noted. “This is the new heartbeat of downtown.” • A long-time journalist, Nora Edinger also blogs at noraedinger.com and Facebook and writes books. Her Christian chick lit and faith-related non-fiction are available on Amazon. She lives in Wheeling, where she is part of a three-generation, two-species household. 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