ust like on a reality television show, Jake Dougherty and Alex Weld knew how the competition ended more than seven months ago — and had to keep it hush-hush. Until today.
The exciting news — that Wheeling Heritage had won the 2019 Great American Main Street Award (GAMSA) — was made public just minutes ago at the National Main Street Conference in Seattle, Wash.
But back in August, on the same day Wheeling Heritage shared the news that its Main Street Wheeling program was a semifinalist for the award, Patrice Frey, National Main Street Center president and CEO, left a voicemail message for Dougherty (executive director) and Weld (project and outreach manager) alerting them to the prize. Wheeling Heritage is one of three winners of the GAMSA. The other two winners announced today were Alberta Main Street, Portland, Oregon, and Wausau River District, Wausau, Wisconsin.
“We put so much into that application — we worked so hard to get the data right. We thought we told Wheeling’s story in the best way,” Weld said.
“It felt a little validating to be able to say what we see here is actually evident. … To have someone else say — an entire committee of preservationist professionals — ‘your community deserves this,’ I think was very validating for us, and makes us want to work even harder to continue to make those numbers go down,” she added.
Wheeling Heritage has generated nearly $50 million in total investment to the downtown area; the downtown vacancy rate has dropped 17 percent — from 32 percent to 15; 124 buildings have seen improvements; and 37 businesses have set up shop. And more projects are on the drawing board.
“In only a few years, Wheeling Heritage has changed the narrative around what is possible for their downtown,” commented Frey. “Wheeling Heritage has brought significant economic opportunity to their Main Street, harnessed the historic character of their downtown and helped residents believe in the future of their community.”
“In only a few years, Wheeling Heritage has changed the narrative around what is possible for their downtown. Wheeling Heritage has brought significant economic opportunity to their Main Street, harnessed the historic character of their downtown and helped residents believe in the future of their community.” — Patrice Frey
Not only did Dougherty and Weld accept the award today at the national conference, but the pair will share their expertise with others as featured presenters at several sessions on Tuesday and Wednesday.
In “How $5 Can Change a Community,” they will discuss the Show of Hands crowd-sourcing event that attracts hundreds of “funders” and selected “grantees,” three times a year.
Weld, along with Co-Starters founder Enoch Elwell, Matt Wagner of the National Main Street Center, and Maiko Winkler-Chin of the Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority, will speak at a general session presentation on “Entrepreneurship on Main Street: Making the Case for Place.”
Dougherty will join other winners of the Great American Main Street Award to talk about “Taking Your Community to the Next Level.”
A HISTORY OF HARD WORK AND COMMUNITY
Wheeling’s Main Street program, launched here in 2015 and one of about 2,000 in the country, is the youngest to win the national honor. However, Dougherty pointed out that the efforts for improvement have been ongoing for years.
“When I think about how much work has been put into revitalizing Wheeling for the past 20 to 30 years, and about how every day our staff comes to work to figure out how we can best serve our community and create that great environment in which everybody can be actively engaged and part of the process, getting this award and recognition was really, really exciting,” Dougherty said.
“I know for so long steadying the ship of a declining community was really important, and it was a lot of hard work. I think of my mentors like Hydie Friend … Craig O’Leary and others who have put in a lot of hard work to be able to get to a point … where it’s now looking up. The trajectory has changed, and we’re a part of that, and being recognized for that change is really, really special,” Dougherty said.
“This is so much a community award, too. We [Wheeling Heritage] run the Main Street Program, but this is about Wheeling,” Weld said.
“We recognize and we build programs around the idea that we can’t do this by ourselves. This isn’t Wheeling Heritage going out there and making the community a better place,” Dougherty said. “It’s about Wheeling Heritage and its partners building programs that allow community members to see their place at the revitalization table, and figuring out how they put their skills to use. I think that activities like Show of Hands really demonstrate that. I think it’s a thread that pulls through all of our programs, though. Wheeling Heritage is at its best when it’s a platform for the community, and I think that that’s what’s being rewarded with this recognition.”
WHAT IS MAIN STREET WHEELING?
Main Street Wheeling is an organization that seeks comprehensive and incremental revitalization of downtown and commercial corridors, Dougherty explained. The idea, he said is “that you move the whole community forward, instead of focusing on one topic and taking it as far as it you can go. … We need to move the whole community forward to create sustained goals.”
The Main Street mentality grew out of the success of shopping malls, Dougherty said. Shopping malls “work because they’re managed, have a full-service approach to them. If we can take that same type of activity and framework and bring it to downtowns, we can help to shape and bring investment back to downtown.”
“Here in Wheeling, we talk about historic buildings a lot. Wheeling Heritage is an organization that’s a preservation organization and a history organization. So when we look at preservation of our historic sites, we have to realize that it’s very difficult to preserve a historic site without a use. We noticed that there was insufficient technical assistance and support for entrepreneurs in our community. So that’s when we started programs that helped to create an ecosystem for entrepreneurship. And it’s growing and growing and growing.”
Co-Starters, an entrepreneur training program that has attracted dozens of participants in Wheeling, and Show of Hands that has financially jumpstarted many new endeavors, are two ways Wheeling Heritage helps to create that ecosystem for entrepreneurship.
“There’s more entrepreneurship in our community, and those entrepreneurs end up filling our historic and vacant buildings,” Dougherty said.
“We’re using economic solutions to preserve our heritage, and that’s the approach we’re taking, that’s the approach that’s working, and that’s why we really advocated around the historic tax credits to create an economic solution to a problem that we saw. That’s the full-scale approach that’s necessary. That’s why we’ve been able to see really good results, and we talk a lot about our vacancy rate dropping from 32 percent to 15 percent in three years. That can happen in various ways.”
Dougherty is proud to say that only two demolitions have helped to create the decline in vacancy. It’s more about businesses filling the previously vacant structures.
“You can demolish all your vacant buildings and have a zero percent vacancy rate. But we wouldn’t be too happy with that. But instead, we’ve been able to see those results happen with minor demolitions … building a base to fill those properties and make properties economically feasible to develop.
“And so I think that number is really good, that 17 percent decrease rate, but we’re not happy with 15 percent [vacancy]. We’re not going to stop; we’re not going to stop here. We’re going to continue to really build the programs that drive that number down to zero.”
Weld added, “I really think the numbers speak for themselves. When you look at the shift the last three years and vacancy rate numbers and number of employees working downtown and the housing … those numbers speak for themselves. The building rehab, too. All are very huge numbers.”
KEEP ON KEEPING ON
“What does [the award] really mean? To us, it means our community is getting recognition for the great changes we’ve seen over the last few years. It doesn’t mean that our community is perfect, and it’s completely revitalized, and everything’s done. It will never be done. There’s a lot more work to do,” Weld said.
“The two things we really talk about are community effort and that our work’s not done … those are the top of the list for us.
“It’s human nature to say, ‘what about this and this and this.’ It’s very true there are a lot of things still in the works, that still need to be resolved, and this award is not staking claim that all of our problems are solved and that our downtown is completely perfect and rehabilitated. It’s giving the community a nod, to say that your work is being appreciated and you’re making great changes to the downtown, and we’re going to keep doing that.”
Mayor Glenn Elliott said he is thankful for the partnership city government has with Wheeling Heritage and for their commitment to downtown revitalization.
“Downtown Wheeling is changing, and Wheeling Heritage is at the forefront of the evolution. There’s a vision for our downtown and Wheeling Heritage is helping to shape the future of our community for residents and visitors alike. This recognition is well deserved,” he said “In just a few short years, Wheeling Heritage has had a significant economic impact to the downtown, all the while preserving the historical integrity of the area.”
Look for Part 2 tomorrow: What’s next on Wheeling Heritage’s drawing board?
• After nearly 38 years as reporter, bureau chief, lifestyles editor and managing editor at The Times Leader, and design editor at The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register, Phyllis Sigal has joined Weelunk as managing editor. She lives in Wheeling with her husband Bruce Wheeler. Along with their two children, son-in-law and two grandchildren, food, wine, travel, theater and music are close to their hearts.