Soon after studying in Belmont College’s building preservation and restoration program in 2012, Brian Wilson was determined to assist in the saving of as many historic structures as he could within his hometown of Wheeling.
He was raised on Rock Point Road, but Wilson had grandparents who resided in East Wheeling, and he recalls staring up at an abandoned house at 115 14th St. and believing it would be ideal for him to buy it, renovate it, and live in it someday.
Wilson did just that in 2012.
“I have that as a very cool memory from my childhood, and now I own it, and I am working to make that childhood dream come true,” he said. “But I was very surprised that it was still available. I know it looked pretty rough, but someone who is interested in preservation has to be able to see beyond the blight.
“My mother grew up in East Wheeling and I spent a lot of time in this neighborhood when I was kid. I loved it here, and it makes me sad to see how it decayed through the years,” he continued. “The residents of this neighborhood deserve better, but I’m not sure that they have been heard much over the past several years.”
In the three years that have since passed, though, Wilson has learned there’s much more involved with preservation than simply buying a property and working on it. That is why the 25-year-old has made the decision to launch his candidacy to become the next council representative for the Friendly City’s third ward.
“Owning a big house that was abandoned for 30 years gives you a lot of time to think about why a house like this can be vacant for so long,” Wilson explained. “And why did it sit here empty for three decades? What led up to this? It started with wanting to restore and preserve the house, but it has since evolved into a policy issue.
“I’ve had to ask why nothing has ever been done about this place. Why has it been a headache for everyone in this neighborhood for the past 30 years? Why did these residents deserve that? Why wasn’t the city marketing this property and other properties instead of just waiting to foot the bill for the demolition? I didn’t think that was fair,” the 2008 Wheeling Park High grad continued. “That’s why I plan to focus on the general quality of life. I want to address the issues that we have with slumlords and negligent property owners because those are the people that are bringing down property values with properties that attract a criminal element.
“I never thought when I bought a big, abandoned house in East Wheeling that my life would turn from hands-on preservation to more concentration on public policy, but I have learned that it all goes hand-in-hand. Preservation, planning, policy – it all has to work together so more structures can be preserved like what we are doing here in East Wheeling.”
Ward Three includes East Wheeling, Center Wheeling, South Wheeling, and Mozart, and Wilson believes that while each neighborhood possesses many of the same concerns, residents of each section of the third ward also are battling against issues unique to those areas. Robert “Herk” Henry has represented the Ward Three for more than 20 years, but he announced several months ago that he does not plan to see re-election. No other candidate besides Wilson has announced a third ward campaign.
“There are a lot of similar problems that the residents of the third ward have, but there also some issues that are unique to this neighborhood and that neighborhood,” Wilson said. “In East Wheeling we’re concerned about what’s going to happen to our built environment, but in South Wheeling they are concerned with what’s going to happen with the vacant land and how it is going to be developed.
“Center Wheeling has a lot of commercial properties, but there is also a lot of residential and with that mixture comes some very different issues from what’s present in the other areas,” he continued. “And in Mozart, the residents there want to know when their roads are going to be improved and what can be done with the recreational areas. So it’s a very complex ward.”
One aspect about living in East Wheeling that irks Wilson involves the status-quo attitude of residents and government officials alike.
“When I have spoken with people here in East Wheeling about some of the suspicious activity that I have witnessed, I’ve been told by some folks that it’s just part of living in East Wheeling. And people living in South Wheeling have told me the same thing,” he said. “But it’s not true. It doesn’t have to be true, but right now there’s no one in the forefront addressing these issues and developing the proper policies.
“Someone has to make the tough decisions in an effort to change the very things that breed some of the problems that really hamper many areas and Ward Three, and it’s time for that to change,” he said. “The people who work for the city are working hard, but right now I think they are far too reactive. I do not believe that’s the most efficient way to deal with these kinds of issues.”
His campaign, Wilson insisted, will be one that includes as much communication as possible with his potential constituents. In fact, he has already initiated several conversations with organizers of neighborhood association groups within Ward Three.
“I plan to be approachable. I plan to be transparent. And I plan to be proactive and to listen to people when they want to tell me what their concerns are,” Wilson explained. “I’m not the kind of person who pretends to know it all because I don’t know it all. I am constantly learning, and that’s going to continue.
“If I am elected, I would maintain an online presence because it’s 2015,” he said. “I will have open lines of communication whether it’s on my phone, online, or if someone just wants to stop by my house to come talk to me.”
Wilson also is active with the Young Preservationists and ReInvent Wheeling, and he is encouraged with the change in the apathetic attitude that ruled the Friendly City for far too long.
“I was here during the 1990s, when all hope seemed lost. It just didn’t seem as if there was a concerted effort to make anything happen,” Wilson said. “But now there’s a different feel. I see people of all ages working together now, and that’s what Wheeling has needed for many years.
“It’s impossible to not be encouraged by what’s been going on in Wheeling during the past three or four years,” he said. “The excitement is now tangible. You can feel it now, and that’s the best news that’s been in Wheeling for a long time.”
(Photos by Steve Novotney)