By Steve Novotney
Hydie Friend was convinced a transfusion was in order, and that’s exactly what the former executive director of the Wheeling National Heritage Area Corp. told her staff several years ago.
Current director Jeremy Morris approached Friend in 2009 with yet another initiative that could lead to progress in the Friendly City. The state’s ON TRAC program was implemented by Main Street West Virginia in an effort to improve a community’s economic and community growth. The goals of the program, according to the ON TRAC website are to “… evaluate, educate and assist communities in these efforts and to prepare them for more advanced technical services through the Main Street program.”
Friend approved, but with a condition.
“When she gave us the OK on this, she said, “Go for it” … but there was a ‘but’ involved,” Morris said. “She instructed us not to go out and get the same 10 people who were volunteering for a lot of things at that time. She told us to go out and get new blood. So that’s exactly what we did.
“We immediately started recruiting people who had not been engaged yet, and we got a lot of new blood. At the time a lot of people were moving back to the area, and they wanted to get involved. We benefitted from that for sure.
“We applied after a group of people came together to put the ‘First Fridays’ events together. When we committed to doing it, we decided we would keep doing it without stopping no matter what the turnout was,” Morris continued. “We didn’t let the low numbers the first couple of months stop us. We kept doing it. We kept promoting it. And now it’s a thing people do every month.”
More than five years later, one of several products of the ON TRAC program is ReInvent Wheeling, an organization headed up by Morris and Wheeling native Jake Dougherty. ReInvent Wheeling is funded by WNHAC, the city of Wheeling, the Regional Economic Development Partnership, the Wheeling Convention and Visitors Bureau, grants, and the private sector.
“One of my frustrations when I first moved here was that folks would do things, but they would only do them once or twice, and then they would stop and move on to something else,” Morris said. “That told me this area lacked persistence for some time.
“That’s why, from the beginning of First Fridays, we set the standard that we weren’t going to quit on an idea that we knew was a good idea,” he said. “So we pushed and promoted it as much as possible, and now it’s a ‘thing to do’ in Wheeling.”
Dougherty, a 2008 graduate of The Linsly School and American University in Washington, D.C., interned with WNHAC for two summers. Even before his commencement from American University, Dougherty was employed as a communications director for an event-planning company in the nation’s capital.
Instead of following that path, Dougherty decided to resign and move back to his hometown to accept a much different mission. Since then, he and his committee members have founded several events such as, “Big Ideas,” and “Show of Hands.” In fact, the organization will host the next “Show of Hands” event on Thursday, Nov. 13, at the Capitol Theatre Ballroom. The crowd-funding function is sponsored by the international law firm Orrick, Herrington and Sutcliffe, allowing the winner to collect at least $1,000. Attendees donate $5, and they vote on their favorite idea. The participant who collects the most votes wins the $1,000, as well as what is generated by attendance.
“It was huge for ReInvent Wheeling to get the private sector working with us in such a way,” Dougherty explained. “Our organization now has about 60 committee members from many different industries and businesses, so we’re able to get support from many, many people who believe in the potential that’s present here right now.
“The primary goal is to make Wheeling the happiest, healthiest, most socially diverse community in America, and there are many different ways to get there,” said Dougherty. “I believe the way the ReInvent Wheeling organization is structured is special because it’s structured around social and community support and engagement.”
“Show of Hands” is an example of Reinvent Wheeling’s efforts to engage not only those with community-related and entrepreneurial ideas, but also to welcome the involvement of all community members who wish to participate.
“A lot of what we do is creating platforms for people to take advantage of, whether it’s ‘Show of Hands,’ or one of the others,” Dougherty explained. “It’s a created platform to help people to receive community support. That’s how we are going to achieve even more progress, and we are going to get to that point because we have an incredible community that is seeking opportunity and sees opportunity.
“I’ve described what’s been happening in Wheeling as making popcorn,” Dougherty explained. “The kernels are in the pan and, the heat is on, and we’ve seen things pop for the past 15 years. Well, now those kernels are popping pretty often, and that’s allowed us to believe we’ll reach the point to where they all start popping.”
Progress has taken place over the past 15 years, including the construction of the Robert C. Byrd Intermodal Transportation Center and the Wheeling Artisan Center, Orrick’s commitment to re-use the former Wheeling Stamping Plant in Centre Wheeling, the construction of Heritage Port, the purchase and renovation of the Capitol Theatre, and the transformation of the former Stone & Thomas building for office space for Williams Lea and Wheeling Jesuit University.
“When people see things like the Capitol Theatre and Heritage Port, it helps make them believe something positive is happening here because they can use it themselves,” explained Dougherty. “Those kinds of developments let them see it and experience it, and when that happens people, appreciate it, and they are able to believe in the future.”
Morris, who moved to Wheeling in 2005, at the age of 28, knows the history of the Upper Ohio Valley well, so he understands why many of the area’s current citizens’ own skeptical attitudes.
“I think people love this place, and they want to feel proud about it. But they also become very cynical at the drop of a dime,” Morris said. “One minute they are praising the park systems or Centre Wheeling or the school system, but then in the next breath they’ll complain about how dreadful it is.
“Every community has its ups and down, and that’s a fact,” he said. “The downs are still hitting hard around here, but there are a lot of people working very hard to limits those downs as much as possible. The only other option is to stop, and we’re not going to do that.”
Dougherty moved home, as have many others for reasons that range from raising children to financial in nature. “A lot of people my age are now graduating college with tons of student loan debt, and the opportunity to buy a home is not an opportunity available to them,” he said.
“In Wheeling, that opportunity is there, and that makes a big difference. You might have to do a little bit of work on that new home, but it’s still an opportunity that you can get here,” Dougherty continued. “Now is the time, and what’s really special is that there are a lot of young people doing a lot of great things, and they are being supported by our older generations. It’s been incredible so far.”
(Photos by Steve Novotney)