WNHAC’s Master Plan, 20 Years Later

WHEELING – Inside the yellowing three-ring binder that contains the 20-year-old Interpretive Master Plan for the Wheeling Heritage Area is a glimpse at what Wheeling’s residents then believed the city could be.

While the document itself has been mostly forgotten, readers who dust it off today will find much that is familiar, perhaps more than in any of the various revitalization plans that have come and gone since the Interpretive Master Plan was released in 1993. Its vision for using history as a tool to revitalize the city has resulted in the current state of some of the most prominent features of downtown Wheeling today, including Heritage Port, the Artisan Center and West Virginia Independence Hall.

Other aspects of the plan, however, have failed to materialize. These include a regular nighttime sound and light show at the waterfront, “Sounds of Wheeling” listening booths up and down Main Street highlighting the original Wheeling Jamboree – even Wheeling Island’s own museum devoted to bridge building and engineering feats centered around the Friendly City’s most famous such structure, the Wheeling Suspension Bridge.

“A lot of what was in there, we’ve tried to make happen. … A lot of this stuff is bigger than what we can handle at any one time, and it all takes money,” Wheeling National Heritage Area Corp. Executive Director Jeremy Morris said.

A collaborative effort between the Wheeling Heritage Area Task Force, city officials and the National Park Service, the plan was released in December 1993 following months of interviews with local residents, including leaders in preservation, education and arts and culture. WNHAC was established soon thereafter to implement the plan. Morris – who joined the organization in 2005 and became its executive director in 2010 – believes, without a doubt, that the organization’s greatest accomplishment has been the creation of Wheeling’s riverfront venue, Heritage Port.

“One of the things we realized was that cities that were revitalizing themselves, what they were doing was reclaiming the river,” Morris said, noting the old Wharf Parking Garage once stood in Heritage Port’s place, effectively cutting off downtown Wheeling from the Ohio River. “We had turned our back on the river at that point.”

Now more than a decade old, Heritage Port hosts dozens of events annually between May and September – including the Upper Ohio Valley Italian Heritage Festival, the Wheeling Vintage Raceboat Regatta and Wine and Jazz Festival, just to name a few, as well as free community concerts and movie nights. Some of the larger events draw tens of thousands of visitors to the city, providing a brisk business for hotels, restaurants and other service industries.

WNHAC also played a significant role in the development of West Virginia Independence Hall, the Mountain State’s birthplace, into a statehood museum.

It was responsible for the first floor exhibits, “West Virginia – Born of the Civil War,” that greet visitors as they enter the museum, which is operated and maintained by the state Division of Culture and History.

The Wheeling Artisan Center, leased and managed by WNHAC, includes River City Ale Works on the first floor, a second floor featuring interpretive history exhibits and a gift shop offering a wide variety of West Virginia arts, crafts, books and music and a hall on the third floor that plays host to various events, speaking engagements and the annual Wheeling Celtic Celebration. And across the street, travelers stopping at the visitors center inside the Robert C. Byrd Intermodal Center can learn about Wheeling’s rich transportation history through more interpretive exhibits, thanks to WNHAC’s efforts.

While Morris is proud of what WNHAC has been able to do, he acknowledged it’s unlikely the organization will be able to implement all aspects of the plan, for various reasons. He believes Wheeling is in need of additional space for a large-scale museum and for archiving purposes, but he admitted such prospects are limited by financial realities.

“You need a lot of space. Very few museums in the world make any money,” Morris said.

Some aspects of the plan have become outdated, as well. Sound and light shows were a popular fad during the 1990s but may not be as big of a draw today, Morris said, and Viewmaster-like devices offering historic views of the city such as those the plan suggests be placed along the Suspension Bridge for pedestrians are no match for modern technology.

Recent advancements and the desire to engage youth in learning about local history have drawn WNHAC in directions that never could have been envisioned when the 1993 plan was created. One example is an application for the iPhone, iPad and Android unveiled last year that maps more than 20 sites of historic significance around town and provides audio and video information about each.

“A lot of that’s more relevant to the younger generation than the written material,” Morris said.

Another ongoing WNHAC effort is the Wheeling Spoken Word Project – compiling hundreds of hours of interviews on topics such as local mobster Bill Lias, the construction of W.Va. 2 and historic Centre Market.

“These are timeless treasures,” Morris said of those stories. “People pass away, people move away.”