Taxpayers Spent About $2M on the J.B. Chambers Sports Complex

Taxpayers Spent About $2M on Sports Facility

Photos by Alec Berry The turf field at the J.B. Chambers Sports Complex catches the sun.

A sign at the J.B. Chambers Sports Complex in East Wheeling displays the donors who contributed to the expense of the project.

WHEELING — Despite some residential tension and the unplanned use of $2 million in public funds, City Manager Robert Herron believes Wheeling City Council made the right call in 2010 by pursuing construction of the $3.3 million J.B. Chambers Sports Complex in East Wheeling.

Herron terms the field a successful regional project. The facility has brought new activity once foreign to the block of 15th and Wood streets by accommodating local and regional sports teams and some community organizations.

Prior to the city’s demolition of the site in 2012, which included 32 buildings, Herron said the block fostered criminal activity and was very much defined by an array of vacant, dilapidated structures.

Looking back, Herron said the original intention for the sports field was to fully finance “the entire project” through private contributions. That didn’t happen. Ultimately, public funds covered a majority of the expenses, while the Ohio Valley Area Development Corp., the city’s development arm, pulled a loan of $250,000 to cover an existing gap.

Herron noted a final tally of nearly $1.8 million in municipal, state and federal dollars, aside from the $250,000 loan, went into the project. That equates to more than 60 percent of the project’s cost being funded by taxpayers.

An estimated $1.2 million from the city went toward acquisition of properties within the block and the complete demolition prior to construction. Roughly $560,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant funds rehabbed the nearby Elks Playground, and about $22,000 from the state of West Virginia purchased playground equipment for the Elks facility.

The $250,000 loan was put toward construction of the field.

Accounting for private donations for the field, Herron said the J.B. Chambers Memorial Foundation provided $750,000, Wheeling Hospital contributed $250,000, the Schenk Charitable Trust gave $150,000, $50,000 came from both Jim and Linda Bordas and the Roy and Dorothy Chambers Foundation, and the Ziegenfelder Frozen Treat Co. granted $10,000.

Herron said the OVADC loan has been repaid with a mix of funds from the J.B. Chambers and Schenk donations, as well as from cash reserves held by the development corporation. He said the city is still seeking private contributions to cover this gap, but noted he does not expect taxpayers to recoup the total public expense through future donations.

“I don’t anticipate the funding structure to change because it’s open and in use, meaning I don’t expect anyone to donate toward the public sector part of it,” Herron said. “That goal was established by City Council, to put forward an effort to raise as much money as possible for the project.”

Wheeling’s annual general fund budget is $33.5 million for the current fiscal year.

Herron agreed that because the project was in motion, the city and its council had to pursue public funding when it became apparent the project would not be completely paid for privately.

Herron’s view of the field’s funding is not fully shared by former Mayor Andy McKenzie. He said the original idea was only to cover the “athletic portion” of the project with private money, while demolition and acquisition of the block would be the responsibility of the city. He said the city approached potential donors with the pitch of tearing down the block, and asked each entity if it would have interest in collaborating.

McKenzie said the city was successful in achieving its intended goal. He said any confusion related to the private money used on the project is unwarranted, as the city made well-publicized announcements anytime an organization offered a check.

Of the 32 properties which once stood within the block, McKenzie said six to eight of them were donated to the city by a private citizen, though said he’d prefer not to reveal who this was.

McKenzie said the real story of the sports complex has yet to be told.

“The project has never been about sports,” he said. “It was always about turning the community around.”

He echoed Herron’s statements about the block being mostly vacant. He said it was one of the roughest sections in the city, and that residents who lived near it felt unsafe.

McKenzie added when he was elected mayor in 2008, he made a promise to make a dramatic change in East Wheeling, and believed a sports complex would pen a strong statement. Reflecting, he said he’s very proud of the facility, and said the neighboring Elks Playground is possibly the nicest play place in Wheeling.

McKenzie said while there was some negativity regarding the project at its onset, he is unaware of any tension within East Wheeling at the present time.

Some residents have raised complaints because the field mostly operates by a schedule, accommodating users on a by-appointment basis, rather than having open access to any member of the community. Many of these users tend to be local or regional school sports teams, which utilize the facility for practice.

Herron has since responded to concerns of access from residents, and said the city’s recreation department has scheduled two times for public use later this month. These will occur from 4-6 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 21 and from 1:30-3 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 22

Scott Smith, supervisor of the J.B. Chambers Sports Complex, clarified this belief, and said when not in use the field is open to anyone, so long as they’re willing to use it responsibly. All anyone needs to do is call him at 304-780-1240, and he will unlock the gate.

“As long as we know who’s on the field, and we have someone responsible if something occurs on the field, it’s easily accessible,” he said.

Smith, who wished to speak for himself and not as a city employee, said early in its life the field was open throughout the day — he would only arrive to lock and unlock it in the evening and morning — yet in this period he said the facility experienced several instances of vandalism. He said younger kids from the neighborhood would use the field unsupervised, and they would attempt to climb on soccer goals, break things and damage the field.

He said the restrooms were egged on an occasion, and obscene graffiti was left. In another instance, toilet paper was lit on fire and left to burn. He said since these events, the rules of the field have changed to reflect a need for supervision when youth use the facility.

Smith said there’s an interest to keep the facility in good shape, and he said the people who use it appreciate that, as do residents of East Wheeling. He said the Elks Playground is the more appropriate venue for unsupervised use.

“It’s just when you make multi-million dollar investments, you don’t want people going there and trashing it,” McKenzie added.

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