It’s a piece of the most important puzzle, Jesse Mestrovic realizes, and that is why this driven young man is more than willing to devote far more than 40 hours per week to reinvent more than 30 recreational facilities in the city of Wheeling.
One reason is that such a collective task is now the focus of his employment for the Friendly City’s government, but it’s also because he possesses many memories of being a child growing up in the Elm Grove neighborhood.
“When school was out for the summer, I would leave the house in the morning and only go back home when it was time for dinner,” he said. “That’s how it was back then, but I don’t think it’s the same today, so that’s one of many reasons these projects are so important to the residents of this city.
“The first thing I had to do was perform an assessment of the city’s playgrounds so I knew where we stood, and improvement is needed, without a doubt, and that’s where this process begins,” he explained. “A part of this is looking into the future five to 10 years from now because we want to make sure the improvements are great for today’s children and will be great for the kids in the future, too.”
Mestrovic was hired in November as the city’s first-ever Director of Parks and Strategic Planning, a position created by Wheeling City Council and Mayor Glenn Elliott. He is a 2004 graduate of Wheeling Park High School who acquired his undergraduate degree in biology and his graduate degree in recreation parks and resources at West Virginia University. Most recently Mestrovic was the executive director of the Greater Moundsville Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.
“The playgrounds are definitely the number one task, but we also want to develop a management plan for the future so the projects that we perform in the coming years are taken care of better than what they have been in the past,” Mestrovic said. “There will be a lot of work that is involved with making these improvements take place in the coming years so that these play areas can remain viable destinations for the children of this city and their parents.
“We want to bring these playgrounds up to the 21st century so that our parents have quality places in their own neighborhoods instead of having to take them somewhere else,” he continued. “To be successful, it’s going to take a village because it’s my goal to get everyone in our city behind these efforts. It’s going to take more than me to move us forward the way we want to do that, and that’s why this is all about the partnerships, and we must work together to get us to where we want to be, and that is where we are improving the quality of life for the kids and their parents.”
The process of collecting community connections was initiated soon after Mestrovic began working for the city of Wheeling nearly three weeks ago in an effort to present possibilities involving public-private partnerships. Community members, business owners, civic and youth organizations, and monetary donors, he explained, will be engaged in the coming months for a variety of reasons.
“That’s because there are a lot of layers when it comes to partnerships,” Mestrovic said. “One example is the Wheeling Arts and Cultural Commission and the great work the members have done over last few years. We would love to have them involved with beautification efforts at these facilities. The folks with ReInvent Wheeling and Wheeling Heritage have worked very hard, too, to improve the downtown district.
“We also have several organizations involved with our ballfields, and it’s my hope to work with them very closely so we can improve those facilities,” he said. “And there is also philanthropy, and there are a lot of different possibilities there for us to investigate.”
There are dollars already earmarked for playground renovations during the five-plus months in two different areas. More than $150,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds is available for use in South and Center Wheeling, on Wheeling Island and in East and North Wheeling, some of the city’s oldest and most historic neighborhoods. Funds for renovations in other areas of the municipality are available, too.
“That money will only get us started on this overall project,” explained Mayor Elliott. “There is no way we could allocate the amount of dollars it would take to rehabilitate all of our playgrounds and fields all at the same time, and I’m not sure how many years it will take for us to do it that way.
“That is one of the reasons why we are very open to work with people in our community who believe in this project and want to get involved with it the way they can,” he continued. “One of the first things we learned is that bringing playgrounds up-to-date is not a cheap process, and that it’s not as simple as it may sound, but we have confidence in Jesse and his capabilities and look forward to seeing his plan of attack.”
The city of Wheeling features top quality recreational facilities, including the Wheeling Skate Park in Elm Grove, the J.B. Chambers Recreation Park in East Wheeling, and the J.B. Chambers/I-470 Complex. so now the older playgrounds and ballfields will be officially assessed during the next few months and decisions will be reached as far as how to approach reinvigorating each facility. Some of the pertinent questions will be:
- Does the playground still need a tennis court or could that area be transformed into pickle ball courts, neighborhood dog park, or into another idea offered by a nearby resident?
- How can baseball and softball fields in Wheeling be upgraded, and how many partnerships can be formed so the city and community can work together at those facilities?
- Could a few playgrounds become destination locations similar to the areas constructed and maintained by Oglebay and Wheeling parks if themes were adopted during the redesign process?
“That’s one option that will be a part of future conversations when those decisions are being made in the future,” Mestrovic reported. “I have seen themes for wetlands, and animals, and space, and several others, so I definitely believe that’s one of the options that we have and that we should consider because it would give our parents and kids a choice on a daily basis, and that’s why it’s important for me to go talk to the people in the community and see what they really want. It’s all about working together to achieve the goals.
“I have spoken with a lot of park and recreation directors from around the country to gain their advice as far as the best ways to get our residents involved with this process, and while the Internet and social media platforms have been successful, not everyone uses the Internet as much as others do,” he explained. “I also am hopeful that our media outlets in the Wheeling area will assist with reaching out to as many people as possible because this is an important aspect of those neighborhoods.”
Another imperative portion of the plan involves public trust and how often children will use the reinvented play areas.
“In the future will parents allow children to go to these new playgrounds without supervision like I did when I was a kid in Elm Grove? That’s a big question, and that is why it is very important we have town-hall-type of discussions so we find that answer from those parents,” Mestrovic said. “The current trends indicate that a child left unsupervised will venture away about a quarter-mile to a half-mile from their homes, so that is something we have to consider, and it’s yet another reason why those discussions with our residents are an important part to all of this.”
But wait; there’s more.
Mestrovic also is studying ways to take advantage of the natural amenities that are present in the city of Wheeling, meaning the ridges and hilltops, and the waterways, too. While locals and visitors have boated on the Ohio River for several decades, and canoes have been seen floating along Big Wheeling Creek for just as long, the popularity of kayaking has increased over the past 15 years.
“And one of the topics about kayaking concerns safe access to our creeks and the Ohio River for those canoeing and kayaking on the river, and we also have to address a maintenance plan for the Heritage Trail that we have along the river and out to the Elm Grove area,” he explained. “We are aware that the trails are in need of attention, so we want to make sure that it takes place so our residents can continue using them in a safe manner.
“Our waterways are cleaner now than they have been a very long time, so I believe the time has arrived for our residents to take advantage of that in a very safe manner,” Mestrovic added. “There’s a ton of potential when you take a good look around, and if we can succeed with our goals, Wheeling will be an even better place to grow up and to live.”
(Photos by Jesse Mestrovic, city of Wheeling)