Fundraising for Sports Field Hits Home Stretch

WHEELING – Mayor Andy McKenzie is certain the J.B. Chambers Recreation Park planned for East Wheeling will open sometime this summer, although he said the city still needs to raise more than a half-million dollars to fully fund the estimated $3 million project.

“I want the field done by summer, so we need to raise the money quickly. … It will be open this summer,” McKenzie said.

Although he’s confident the city’s final fundraising push will be successful, he did not rule out using taxpayer money to meet that self-imposed deadline and reimbursing city coffers as additional private donations are collected.

City Council took a similar approach with the project’s early phases, spending about $1.2 million for design, the purchase of properties on the city block bounded by 15th, 16th, Wood and McColloch streets and demolition of the buildings on them.

It remains McKenzie’s goal to pay for the park – which will include an artificial turf field suitable for multiple sports, two basketball courts and brand new playground equipment – entirely with private contributions.

Though the mayor said the city has received multiple large donations and pledges in writing – all of which he noted are $50,000 or larger – a $750,000 gift from the J.B. Chambers Foundation has been the only publicly announced donation toward the project to date.

According to McKenzie, no donor thus far has asked to remain anonymous. And while he’s not prepared to release their identities just yet, he stressed he wants to eventually recognize those who have contributed to the project.

He offered one example, a donor he said contributed about $500,000 toward the project. When adding that donation to the Chambers donation, the city will have needed to raise an additional $1.25 million to be $500,000 from its goal.

“I want to make a big deal of that support, because we couldn’t have done it without this person,” McKenzie said.

The mayor said there hasn’t been much discussion about the timing of such announcements, noting his priorities are finishing the fundraising effort and keeping the city as a whole financially sound.

“We may announce them individually, we may announce them collectively. … It could be the day we break ground that we’ll announce them, it could be tomorrow,” McKenzie said of the donors.

He said every contribution pledged thus far has come from individuals, businesses and foundations.

“No churches, though,” McKenzie said. “Of course, we’ve not asked any churches, either.”

One of the issues surrounding the project has been allegations the field is being built primarily for the benefit of Wheeling Central Catholic High School, operated by the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston. After months of rumors, the accusation was raised in open court when three property owners attempted to block the city’s use of eminent domain powers to secure their homes.

However, now-retired Circuit Judge Arthur Recht dismissed those claims based on lack of evidence, calling them “naked allegations” based on “gossip and innuendo” during a hearing last January.

He ultimately affirmed the city’s right of entry to the properties and ruled the city could proceed with the project.

Last month, Wheeling Central football coach Mike Young announced a partnership with Wheeling Jesuit University that is likely to result in the Maroon Knights playing their home games at the university’s James LaRosa Field, possibly by this fall, and indicated the school is involved in helping the university raise money toward an estimated $2 million in planned renovations to that facility.

Before construction on the East Wheeling sports field can proceed, American Electric Power still must relocate some of the utility lines that lead to its substation near the project site. Once that’s done, demolition contractor Edgco Inc., the city’s demolition contractor, can return to the site, fill in the foundations of the razed buildings and level the site in preparation for the field to be built.

In addition to what McKenzie said will be the only artificial turf field in the Ohio Valley open for the public’s general use, the park will feature two basketball courts and a brand new, centrally located playground to replace the equipment at the former Elks Playground that was removed during demolition.