There is the good and the bad about downtown Wheeling right now. There’s no other option than to be honest about it.
More people work today inside the Stone Center than even when the structure housed Stone & Thomas, but the former Wheeling-Pitt Steel headquarters is completely empty and could land on the auction block later this year.
The purchase and recent renovations to the former Riley Building, now known as the Kaley Center, have transformed the corner of 14th and Chapline streets from dingy to handsome, but 60 feet across the street rests the old Rogers Hotel, now a gutted structure owned by an Akron man who is consistently answering questions to city officials.
The corner of 12th and Chapline streets is the downtown district’s most attractive corner with the Metropolitan Grill, the Board of Trade Building, the Paull Building and the Federal Courthouse (Northern District), but trek one block west to 12th and Market, once the busiest, and it’s struggling with an outdated and mostly vacant McClain Building and the McLure Hotel.
West Virginia Northern Community College has expanded and invested in the downtown with the re-development of two former car dealerships at 16th and Market, but the city recently was somewhat forced to purchase three structures one block away to shut down nuisance bars allegedly catering to criminal activity.
Market Plaza was renovated in 2015 and is now much more walkable than in the past and features benches and tables, but will development follow on the blank lots to increase the dining opportunities in the area?
The $16 million Health Plan project is expected to begin in the late-spring, and the two remaining businesses – Panda Chinese Restaurant and Vocelli’s Pizza – will move by June 1 so those two buildings can be demolished, and yet some, like Ward 2 council candidate Charles Ballouz, continue to retain an, “I’ll believe it when I see it” attitude.
And this week the demolitions of three buildings near the corner of 12th and Main streets, the former Camiletti Law Office, the Peking Garden, and the Wesbanco Bank drive-thru, will continue, and then the former locations for CBI Office Furniture and Companion Products will be cleared, too. The future uses of the parcels have not been released for public consumption.
“The demolitions now taking place on the corner of 12th and Main streets is a private project that will open up new space for opportunity and investment into the downtown district for the creation of new jobs,” explained Wheeling Mayor Andy McKenzie. “Because it is a private project, that’s all I know at this time, but I can tell you that I have never received so many phone calls about our downtown since becoming the mayor seven and a half years ago.
“I believe the new development will continue not only in downtown but in other areas of the city, and that’s because, for the first time, I am fielding calls about offering potential developers a list of all of the available properties in downtown Wheeling. They want a list, and no one has ever requested that while I have been in this position,” the mayor continued. “We’re also going to see several current companies grow, too, like Williams and Orrick, along with both OVMC and Wheeling Hospital.”
The mayor, who will deliver his final State of the City Address on Tuesday at noon Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack, explained the city of Wheeling has reached this point because the administration guided by former mayor Nick Sparachane initiated the conversation about the future of the six dilapidated buildings in the downtown’s 1100 block.
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“That’s when council voted in favor of buying those buildings, and then after I was elected, we orchestrated the purchases. After showing them to anyone who wanted to see them for two years, we then voted in favor of bringing them down to make space for potential growth,” McKenzie recalled. “And then I think a turning point for the downtown was reached after the purchase of the Capitol Theatre after it had been closed for two years. Ultimately, it was the CVB that purchased it, and if that didn’t happen, I bet the building would be in a state of severe disrepair.
“But what that did was drive people back to the downtown to see shows like the Broadway series and Seinfeld, and the John Mellencamp concert is coming up and that’s going to be a pretty big crowd, too,” he said. “There are not many series in the country that have entertainment venues the caliber of Wesbanco Arena, the Capitol Theatre, and Heritage Port, and I’m not sure whether people realize it, but that’s a heck of trifecta we have in our downtown. They are all success stories.”
More than 70 outdoor events were staged at Heritage Port in 2015, including the Upper Ohio Valley Italian Festival and the Wheeling Heritage Blues Fest, but the waterfront development now is in need of attention from city government.
“When Heritage Port was constructed, it was built with state and federal dollars, but those funds are no longer available,” McKenzie explained. “In the past seven years maintenance has taken place, and improvements have been made, but I think the next city council will need to review the facility and will have to re-invest in it to ensure its future as a quality venue like it has been since opening in 2001.
“Our downtown will never be perfect, and I hope everyone realizes that,” McKenzie said. “There will always be issues in the downtown, but I know for the next few months I and the current council members will continue to improve the business environment in the entire city because that’s a municipal government’s role in economic development, and I believe our city government has sent a strong message to our business community that we are engaged and that we are not going to allow an opportunity to pass us by.”
McKenzie also set the record straight concerning the cost to Wheeling taxpayers as far as site preparation within the 100 block is concerned. “We’re not spending a single dollar on site prep there. Not a single dollar, but I realize that’s not what has been reported the past couple of weeks,” the mayor insisted. “The $3 million that’s been reported are dollars that have always been involved in the 1100 block project for the demolitions, and those funds also will go toward the streetscaping that we have planned for the entire downtown area.
“That’s only where city government is involved, though. There’s a lot more investment being made in the downtown district that many people likely do not realize, like the $8 million in renovations to the Windsor Manor that have taken place in the past year alone,” McKenzie continued. “Major investments have taken place by the ownership of Kalkreuth Roofing, by the owners of the former Fort Henry Club, and in many other areas, and I think that’s because the atmosphere in the downtown right now is more positive than it has been in my lifetime.
“Look at it this way,” the mayor added. “Williams Lea is an international company just like Orrick is, and those companies could grow and expand anywhere they wanted to, but they have chosen to grow here in Wheeling. Wheeling Hospital owns the facility in Bellaire and OVMC owns East Ohio Regional, so both of them could grow in those other locations. But they, too, have chosen to grow in Wheeling. That really says something.”