Previous growth spurts are what have propelled Oglebay Park to become one of the top municipal parks in the United States, since industrialist Earl Oglebay opted to bequeath his cherished Waddington Farm property to the city of Wheeling.
Col. Oglebay initially purchased 25 acres to use while furthering his research into farming methods, while raising a pure-blood livestock. Purchase after property purchase increased his ownership to 754 acres, and before his death in June 1926 he had erected 65 structures on the property, surrounded by lavish landscaping.
Former executive secretary for Oglebay Institute, Betty Eckhardt, composed and published the story of how Waddington Farm became Oglebay Park in 1933 after the first seven seasons of activities. In those 39 pages Eckhardt preserves the process and the struggles involved with the city of Wheeling’s take over of the maintenance and activities program that included concerts, day camps, theatrical events, and the founding of Oglebay Institute in 1930.
“July 8, 1927 is the historic date of the first camp at Oglebay Park. It is difficult now to imagine the old carriage house as a dining room, the mansion as a meeting place, and the cottages at the left of the Park entrance as the only buildings available for public lodging,” she wrote on the seventh page. “In spite of the limited equipment the first season carried a full schedule of camps and special dinners.”
New Hampshire native Stephen Hilliard knows that history and much more, already. As the new CEO of the Wheeling Park Commission, Hilliard arrived with much experience in the hospitality industry, and he plans to access this knowledge while guiding an $8 million growth spurt this year.
“What really excites me is the history and the heritage involved with these two parks, and we’ve been thinking of ways we can bring that back to the forefront,” said the 61-year-old Hilliard. “I think that’s one of those ‘fresh eyes’ points of view, and I couldn’t be more excited about the mountain biking that we want to bring into the park. It’s something brand new for Oglebay Park, and I have no doubt that our residents are going to embrace it and have a lot of fun with it.
“I am sure people will come from out of town for the new mountain-biking trails, but I want our local residents to realize that this park is theirs, and the improvements that will come in the future are for them, too,” he said. “We are now thinking of ways we can offer new opportunities inside this fantastic park that we have here, and the mountain-biking trails are one of those ideas. We have been successful in finding many of the original trails in the park, and I believe it’s going to give our local residents a chance to rediscover their park.”
Local residents, though, should expect many more improvements in the coming months, including upgrades to the Wheeling Park ice rink and to the pool area directly behind the Pine Room at Oglebay Park.
“We are very excited because there are going to be changes coming to the ‘kiddie pool’ area,” Hilliard revealed. “We are going to completely renovate that whole area, and it’s going to become a ‘spray-and-splash park’ and that will be a whole new look for the park. And if all goes well, it will open during the Fourth of July weekend.
“As far as the pool is concerned, it is an enormous pool that has been there for a long time, and we are working on some conceptual ideas about how we might be able to re-work that facility,” he continued. “We want to be able to incorporate a lot of the fun things that we already have like the big lawn beach. But that’s something that we plan to put a lot of thought into before anything happens there.”
Wilson Lodge will also receive more than $5 million in improvements and renovations, and that is because Hilliard must focus on the resort side of Oglebay’s business. The lodge was first opened in 1957, and following the $15 million expansion of 53 guest rooms in 2006, the hotel now offers nearly 300 rooms, conference areas, banquet facilities, an indoor pool and fitness center, Glassworks Grill, the Ihlenfeld Dining Room, and 54 vacation cottages.
“For me, this position is all about the parks and the people who visit our parks,” Hilliard said. “In this situation we just happen to have a resort within our park, and making sure we do that part of the business well is very important because that’s how the funds for all of the programming that we do are generated. Wilson Lodge is a wonderful, beautiful place, and it’s very important we keep it that way, but we also have to concentrate on the parks, too.
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“And we also must concentrate on the programming that we offer because that’s why the local residents come here. If we fail to do that, then you and I won’t be coming here, and that’s not something we ever want to see,” he said. “So we just have to take care of everything we offer here as a park for our local customers and as a resort for those who choose to stay with us for some time away from their regular lives.”
Hilliard, whose last management position was at the Omni Mount Washington Resort in Bretton Woods, N.H., was hired in late October to follow retired CEO Doug Dalby. Since he arrived, Hilliard has studied the operations at both Oglebay and Wheeling parks, and he has made changes already.
“I can understand it if some people have concerns about cuts because we do have to adjust our business model. And I can understand the concerns because that’s what is usually present when the new guy comes in,” Hilliard said. “There’s that fear factor that the new guy has two heads and breathes fire.
“But I think I have been here long enough now that most of our people have gotten over those fears,” he said. “I believe we have crossed the bridge now that our people can see that I don’t breathe too much fire, and now we’re at the stage where great ideas are bubbling up from the members of the team, and it’s very, very exciting.”
Change, though, is inevitable.
“Vacations are taking place very differently these days. They are shorter, what the people are looking for now is very different, technology requirements are very different, and summer has become shorter,” Hilliard explained. “Summer doesn’t last until Labor Day any longer, and it even starts later than when I was in school.
“People’s leisure time is very different from what it used to be, and that requires us to think differently as far as how we deliver what we do here,” he said. “That’s why we plan to ramp down some pieces and why we will ramp up some pieces, and change is something that has to be a constant so we can adapt to the changes of the future.”
He says Oglebay is the final stop in his career. He and his wife plan to shop for a farm in the area come spring, and the couple will then move their horses from their property in Florida’s panhandle to the rolling hills of Ohio County.
“For me, coming here makes sense because all of my reasons are the same ones as far as why people love Oglebay so much,” Hilliard said. “This is the kind of position that is a stewardship and not necessarily a job. There a lot of similarities to what I have done in the past, so it feels comfortable, but there are also a lot of differences that are challenging.
“I believe there are some things that I can bring to the table that will help us all move forward,” he continued. “I believe I can add value and have a positive impact on the park system. There’s a lot of history and heritage involved here, and I feel I can build upon that as opposed to over it. And I think we can have a lot of fun, quite frankly, as we look ahead.”
One major difference between his position with the Wheeling Park Commission and his employment with the Omni Mount Washington Resort is the fact that profits at Oglebay flow back into the commission’s two park facility instead of 30 percent heading to ownership. Hilliard also is excited to investigate how he can attract back local residents to Oglebay and Wheeling Park.
“I am well aware there are certain things that our team needs to deliver to the local residents so that they continue to be in love with this place,” Hilliard explained. “My hope is that we do our jobs so well that they will end up enjoying what we have here a little more than what they have recently and the same goes for the people from outside the area who come here to stay with us.
“One of our distinguishing points of difference is that we don’t have to worry about making enough money so that there’s 20 or 30 percent that goes off to an owner somewhere. That’s very special,” he continued. “So what we make over and above what it takes us to operate on a daily basis can be plowed back into the business, and that’s a very cool situation. It all gets re-invested back into the park system to make the experience much better for our local residents and for those who stay with us in Wilson Lodge or in the cottages, and this year will represent only the beginning.”