More Demo In the Works

After a failed attempt to sell the former Gene Long Community Center on Wheeling Island, the decaying, city-owned landmark displaying decades of high water marks from various floods will come down.

City Manager Robert Herron said he has authorized an asbestos inspection for the 145-year-old building on Virginia Street, where falling bricks have closed a portion of the sidewalk since February. Inspections also will take place at two houses at 195 and 197 15th Street as the city prepares to clear those structures, gutted by a Dec. 8 fire, Herron said.

Following the inspections, the city will put abatement of the structures out for bid, followed by demolition. Wheeling typically relies on Community Development Block Grant money for such demolitions – but in order to get them torn down sooner rather than later, Herron said the city may use its own money to avoid the red tape involved in federally funded demolitions.

These demolitions could signal a change in the way Wheeling clears dilapidated structures in the future. Although the city has no plans to abandon its CDBG demolition program, it may begin to focus spending of the city’s allocation on other projects in low- to moderate-income areas – street paving, sidewalk repair or improvements such as the new Elks Playground in East Wheeling – and seek to use its own funds more often to tear down buildings.

“It almost seems crazy to use CDBG funds to tear down buildings,” Mayor Andy McKenzie said during a recent City Council meeting, after Economic and Community Development Director Nancy Prager listed the steps her office must complete before spending federal money to tear down a building.

Obtaining clearance from the State Historic Preservation Office is a major string attached to using CDBG money for demolition. In order to receive that clearance, the city must photograph the building and research its history, including who lived there and what they did for a living, in order to “mitigate” the historic impact of losing the structure. Then it must determine the cost of repair versus the cost of demolition – a process that, in all, usually takes about six months, Prager said.

Herron said CDBG has provided a “convenient” source of funding for demolition over the years, but the process has become more bureaucratic of late.

“We’re not going to eliminate CDBG demolitions,” Herron said. “But if there are funds available through city sources, it is less expensive and faster.”

If the city can get clearance from the SHPO to tear the Gene Long building and 15th Street structures down within a couple of months, it could use CDBG money, Herron said. Otherwise, Wheeling will dip into its “restricted capital improvement projects” fund for that purpose.

“I’m not optimistic,” he said of obtaining timely approval from the SHPO.