Getting The Ball Rolling

Give Wheeling officials and civic leaders credit: There are more reasons for people to be downtown than there were a few years ago. The Capitol Theatre and events at the Heritage Port, ranging from the Italian Festival to the Vintage Raceboat Regatta, bring tens of thousands of people downtown some months.

And then they leave, returning only the next time there’s a special event. What else is there to do? Walk around looking at empty buildings?

I don’t mean to be critical of anyone involved in redevelopment efforts. Far from it. They’ve accomplished some good things.

But not enough.

Now, however, there is a new PLAN for downtown Wheeling.

Yes, another one. At some point the public library may have to open a new section to accommodate all the downtown redevelopment plans. In case you hadn’t noticed, none of them has worked – in part, of course, because some haven’t really been implemented. The new one is somewhat different, however.

It is brainchild of Lou Stein and a group of local folks vitally concerned with the future of downtown Wheeling. Instead of launching a comprehensive redesign, they want to start at the grassroots level.

As Stein explained it in a story we published last week, he wants to fill vacant storefronts. He understands that “in order to make people believe, they have to see something happen.”

I certainly wish Stein and the Wheeling Downtown Business Association luck. Clearly, they’re going to need it.

Downtown will never again be home to big stores such as Stone and Thomas or Sears. It’s highly unlikely any of the big chain restaurants will ever consider downtown. That leaves it up to independent entrepreneurs to fill the empty buildings, perhaps with small specialty bookstores, upscale antique shops, unique clothing stores – the kind of shopping and eating attractions you don’t find in the malls and other big retail developments.

But here’s the trouble with that idea: It’s been tried. How many neat little restaurants have opened – and closed – in downtown Wheeling? Lots. How many of the other types of businesses I listed have been tried, only to fail?

It’s a sort of cart-before-horse challenge: To get a lot of such businesses in downtown Wheeling, there have to be customers. To get customers, you have to have a lot of businesses.

Unless. There already are a fair number of interesting little places in the downtown area. If their business started to boom, others would be tempted to follow them.

That’s where all of us who have been hoping for a better downtown come in – or should come in.

Check out some of the downtown area shops. Eat a meal or two here. Heck, maybe we can get a ball rolling.

Myer can be reached via e-mail at: