It’s a question that has been asked since the opening of the Ohio Valley Mall in the late 1970s and an inquiry being posed more often now because of the continued development of The Highlands in Ohio County near the West Virginia-Pennsylvania border.
What reason do the estimated 55,000 motorists traveling through the Northern Panhandle on Interstate 70 have to take Exit 1A to visit downtown Wheeling?
In an article published by Weelunk on January 22, state officials revealed why the downtown Wheeling businesses are unable to acquire a blue “Attraction Sign” near the exit just as The Highlands, the mall and plaza in Belmont County, Elm Grove, and Clator exits do before and after the Friendly City’s downtown district.
Carrie Bly, spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Transportation, cited at the time the Logo-Signing Manual, which was revised in 2005.
“Any time an area is being looked at for this program, an engineering evaluation takes place, and that’s how the decision is made,” she said. “Here in Charleston, for example, there are not Attraction Signs because of the amount of interchanges and bridge systems involved.
“The same is true as Interstate 70 approaches Wheeling Tunnel,” Bly continued. “Not only is that an area where Interstate 70 is reduced down to one lane, but there also are several exits in the area, and there are three bridge systems leading into the tunnel. Why that has not been explained to the business owners asking the question I do not know, but it sounds to me as if they have yet to reach the right person, and they have not reviewed the manual that is available online.”
The manual states that such an evaluation would take into consideration but not be limited to the following:
The number and sequence of interchanges spaced at distances of one mile or less.
The proliferation of existing official signs.
The ability of drivers to guide their vehicles in a safe and prudent manner within a specific section of roadway.
The availability of outdoor advertising visible from the expressway.
The visibility of numerous motorist services and travel attractions from the expressway.
“In that area it was determined that it would be better to concentrate on traffic patterns and not where to eat,” Bly said. “And those decisions have to be made to ensure the safety of the motorists traveling on all the interstates in the state of West Virginia.”
This question – “What does downtown Wheeling need to pull traffic off Interstate 70?” – was recently posed to local lawmakers and candidates, tourist officials, and local residents, and each of them offered the following answers during interviews or in email replies:
Andy McKenzie, Mayor of Wheeling:
“The thoughts that I have as far as what our downtown district needs includes a new hotel and conference center so we can begin recruiting more company conventions into the area. That is something we have discussed during the seven years I have served as the city’s mayor.
“And thanks to an increase over the past few years in downtown residential and the new housing that is under development at this time, I believe a grocery store would be a development that would become very popular very quickly. I would also like to see more retail specialty stores, more live music, and additional art activities and events. We need to acquire the ability to create a long-term theme for downtown – a theme that makes it different from any other community to drive through while traveling on Interstate 70 and I-470.”
Frank O’Brien, executive director, Wheeling Convention and Visitors Bureau:
“I had a crazy idea about placing an 80-foot aluminum Christmas tree in the green space between Wesbanco Arena and Heritage Port a number years ago that I thought would help gain the downtown area at least more traffic. We even had a local architect, Dennis Madama, design it using the old snowflakes that used to be in the downtown area as a part of Oglebay’s Fantasy of Lights attraction in the winter.
“The idea included working with Wheeling Park students to build it, and remember we’re talking about something eight stories high, so it would not have been as simple as putting up a big tree like we have there for several years. But we really didn’t know what to do with it during the other months of the year, so that project never came to fruition.
“Another wacky idea was brought to me by a local gentleman who thought of a replica of the Eiffel Tower on the property behind Main Street Bank’s headquarters on Main Street. His idea was to have an elevator that would go to the top decks for really great views of the downtown and the Ohio River; a restaurant in the middle of the tower; and a gondola traveling over the river to and from the racetrack on Wheeling Island. Both of those ideas are out-of-the-box, but that’s usually is what works.”
James Guy, resident, Warwood section of Wheeling:
“I kind of liked the outlet mall idea for downtown Wheeling when that was a big topic of conversation about 15 years ago. I thought that would have definitely worked for the locals, and I thought it could work like it has in other areas. Nowadays I hear from a lot of people who are shopping more and more at the Tanger Outlets above Washington, Pa., and I always think that it could have been in Wheeling.
“Another good idea that was discussed for downtown Wheeling was about the national Civil War Memorial. Putting something like that in downtown would have driven a lot of traffic because there are more people today researching the Civil War than ever before. Just ask the people in Gettysburg. I believe the return on that would have far outweighed the expense, and it’s still not been established anywhere. Maybe that idea could come back.”
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W.Va. Del. Erikka Storch, R – 3rd House District; President, Wheeling Chamber of Commerce:
“People go to places they know when they are traveling, and I have met a lot of visitors who have told me that when they drive through they are always sure to go back to restaurants like Later Alligator and the Vagabond Kitchen. So to get more people to know about those kinds of places that we have here is up to the marketing, I believe.
“I also believe Wheeling would benefit from an RV Park somewhere in the area of downtown because of the number of phone calls that I receive about those kinds of facilities in this area. People want to visit the historical places, or they want to visit Oglebay, or the racetrack. The racetrack might want to consider something like that. I realized that’s not in downtown Wheeling but if those people are on the Island that’s closer than the next alternative. The closest RV facility to Wheeling I found is at Bark Camp in Belmont County.”
Gene Fahey, Vice Mayor, Ward 6 Council representative, City of Wheeling:
“I believe it is all in marketing. By branding the city as something you just can’t drive by gives you the opportunity to pull them off the interstate. For example, Lewisburg named itself America’s coolest small town. They believed in their town, and every chance they could they marketed themselves as America’s coolest little town. Then people wanted to go there and see for themselves.
“We need to rebrand ourselves in a major way. Could you imagine billboards 50 miles out in each direction on I-70 letting people know they are about to come upon this really unique experience and actually get off the exit because they are that intrigued? I think this is an outstanding community project rather than a single development.”
Michael Biela, Marketing Assistant, Wheeling Convention and Visitors Bureau:
“I believe part of the solution is to have more great, national acts at the Capitol Theatre and at Wesbanco Arena that are geared to people of all ages. The Avett Brothers and Elton John are great examples of the success that can be realized when those acts do come to downtown Wheeling.
“The industry is changing all of the time, and here in Wheeling we know that very well because of the national acts that once played one of those venues. If those acts are scheduled more often, I think you would see the private sector react to take advantage of the opportunity.”
Kurt Zende, Centre Market manager, Economic Development Specialist, City of Wheeling:
“Let’s assume we could get the private sector interested in investing in the downtown area by matching these businesses goods and services to the needs and wants of the tens of thousands of travelers traversing Interstate 70 and I-470. Two things come to mind which are mutually exclusive but would create a much needed synergy to create that core terminus. I envision an Old Fort Henry with period reenactments coupled with like-period businesses housed in buildings with period- facades up and down Main Street. Those businesses would cater to the tourist.
“Then in between Main and Market coming down the hill a huge indoor/ outdoor waterpark. Over on Market Street, you would have more reenactments but ones that would cater to the Civil War period. Shops and eateries then open all around the attractions.
“I’ve also envisioned a gondola lift from Wheeling Island Casino to Wesbanco Arena. We have everything except for the investors. I think fun and history always draw.
Glenn Elliott, attorney; owner of the Professional Building; candidate for Mayor of Wheeling:
“There is no magic-bullet solution here. The things that are going to attract people off the interstates are the same things that are going to make Wheeling a better city in which to live and work: business districts that are vibrant destinations with eclectic retail; a variety of dining options; walkable streets; waterway attractions; live music, etc.
“But it never hurts to have a main attraction that can draw tourists and travelers on its own. I have felt for many years now that the area around the confluence of the Ohio River and Wheeling Creek is ripe for public and private development. In the 1990s, millions of dollars were spent by the Army Corps of Engineers to assess the feasibility of developing that area all the way to Tunnel Green with a visitor center, an entertainment park, bike paths, and waterside restaurants. The plan never went anywhere, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a terrific idea worth dusting off.”
W.Va. Del. Shawn Fluharty, D-3rd House District; attorney:
“What I would like to see are more people taking the downtown exit because that’s where they live and that’s because I believe if we have more people living in downtown Wheeling the new businesses will follow. We’ve already seen it take place in the Market Plaza area, and that’s how it takes place. If we can get more people living in downtown, the private sector will lead the real rebirth.
“I’ve seen it take place in Charleston. Ten years ago when I was a legislative intern, downtown Charleston was a ghost town, but then developers turned a lot of the buildings into residential living, and it’s completely different today. That can happen in downtown Wheeling.”