McKenzie Says City Needs More Housing

Mayor Andy McKenzie believes there are plenty of people who want to live in downtown Wheeling – it’s just a matter of creating somewhere for them to do so, he told members of the Wheeling Rotary Club on Tuesday.

As he looks forward to the completion over the next several months of two major projects that marked his first term in office, including the demolition of several city-owned buildings in the 1100 block of Main and Market streets and construction of a community sports field in East Wheeling, the mayor said one of his goals for term number two is addressing a lack of available housing in the city.

McKenzie said the problem is one that predates the current oil and gas boom, but the increase in regional drilling activity has underscored the need as neighboring counties are capitalizing on the demand for suitable living space. Washington County, Pa., he pointed out, has seen more new houses built in the last three years alone than Ohio County has in the last half-century.

“Think about that. … A lot of these people are commuting, coming to work in our downtown,” said McKenzie.

Over the last few years, McKenzie said, real estate professionals have told him they have a number of clients who would love to live downtown, if only someone would build a place to which they could move. The concept of living in a downtown environment, within walking distance of work, food and entertainment, appeals to many young adults today, he added.

During his talk, the mayor also addressed the issue of redeveloping the 1100 block.

McKenzie said officials made every effort to attract developers to the former Rite Aid, G.C. Murphy and River City Dance Works buildings, noting City Council likely “would have given them away” had there been any interest in repurposing them. That’s a major reason, he said, why it took nearly four years to initiate the demolition process after the city spent $715,000 to purchase the structures in September 2008.

According to McKenzie, companies seeking a place to do business are looking for one of two things: buildings with “modern” floor plans, or open space. Until council made the decision to tear down the buildings in the 1100 block, those were features downtown Wheeling simply had no way to provide, he said, noting the Century Equities building at 1233 Main St. – built during the 1980s – represents the most recent construction downtown.

“There are some structures we should save … but there are some buildings that are simply old,” said McKenzie, citing the Capitol Theatre and the former B&O building now occupied by West Virginia Northern Community College as examples of buildings with real historical value that were worth saving.

As for what residents can expect after the rubble is cleared from the 1100 block, McKenzie said he doesn’t yet have anything to announce but noted the city is actively marketing the properties and there has been “real interest” in them.