Wheeling City Officials Hope Health Plan Will Lead to Cure for Vacant Buildings

Governor in town for ribbon cutting

Photo by Scott McCloskey West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice speaks Thursday about the opening of The Health Plan headquarters.

WHEELING –From the windows of their four-story headquarters in the 1100 block, nearly 400 employees of The Health Plan cannot help but see multiple vacant buildings, such as the former Chase Bank on Market Street and the city-owned structures on Main Street.

However, those on hand for the official opening of the $16 million headquarters Thursday do not believe these buildings will be vacant for long, while company CEO Jim Pennington said the project will lead a downtown Wheeling renaissance.

“Our purpose is to hopefully be the spark that continues to grow downtown Wheeling,” Pennington said Thursday.

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice took a break from the action with the Legislature in Charleston to fly in by helicopter for the Thursday ceremony.

“I congratulate The Health Plan beyond belief,” Justice said. “This is extremely important for the city of Wheeling.”

Mayor Glenn Elliott and City Manager Robert Herron acknowledged there is still work to do, but are very glad The Health Plan is in place.

“It’s difficult to put into words just how important this project is for downtown Wheeling,” Elliott said. “I thank all those involved for making this a reality.”

“This is a significant success story for the city of Wheeling,” Herron added. “We hope to be able to emulate this success throughout the city.”

Vacancies Nearby

Looking out the windows on the Market Street side of The Health Plan, one clearly views the former Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel building and the former Chase Bank building, both of which are currently vacant. On the Main Street side, the Absure Tower to the south is vacant, as are the two city-owned structures just outside Pennington’s office window: 1107-1109 Main St.

“We don’t have 10 years to wait for the next big project,” Elliott said. “We are hopeful for the Wheeling-Pitt building.”

Officials with Louisville, Ohio-based Coon Restoration and Sealants hope to complete a $20 million project at the Wheeling-Pitt building that would include about 100 new market-rate apartments. The company is seeking approval for both state and federal historic preservation tax credits that could reduce the cost of the project by up to 45 percent.

Vice Mayor Chad Thalman said Thursday contractors have been working in the Wheeling-Pitt building to clean out the city’s tallest structure, which was basically abandoned more than five years ago when the company then-known as RG Steel declared bankruptcy. He said construction of a new parking garage, to the south of The Health Plan site, may occur with the Wheeling-Pitt apartment project.

“There’s still a lot to do, but it’s moving forward,” Thalman said.

As for the Chase building, it has been vacant since the bank moved offices to its Bae Mar Place location last summer. The building that formerly housed Subway at the corner of 11th and Market streets is also vacant.

On the Main Street side, the imposing Absure Tower sits vacant. Also, city leaders are evaluating development proposals for the buildings they own at 1107-1109 Main St. A mixed-use structure with loft apartments, a Mexican restaurant and a pizza shop are the businesses considered for these buildings.

“We will do what we can to facilitate business,” Herron said. “Ultimately, it’s up to the private sector to make the investments.”

Momentum From Project

Although there is still more to do, the progress of having the giant new building in the heart of downtown cannot be denied, officials said. Just up Main Street, loft apartments are under construction at the former Gerrero Music building, while renovations at the Flatiron Building to the south for the same purpose also are ongoing.

These projects are in addition to the Boury Lofts at the corner of 16th and Main streets and the Stone Center Lofts in the former Stone & Thomas building.

“I feel so great for the town,” former mayor Nick Sparachane said while standing in the lobby of The Health Plan. “Wheeling is a success because so many people love it.”

Almost exactly a decade ago, under Sparachane’s leadership, city council voted to use tax increment financing to purchase several dilapidated structures in the 1100 block of Main and Market streets. After Sparachane left office, former mayor Andy McKenzie eventually convinced city council the best option was to demolish the structures because they were in such significant disrepair.

“If you tear it down, they will come,” McKenzie said was the position he took with council regarding the former structures.

In December 2015, city leaders joined officials with The Health Plan to announce the company would relocate its corporate office from St. Clairsville to downtown Wheeling.

“A lot of things are now happening, Mr. Pennington, because of you and The Health Plan,” McKenzie added while addressing Pennington and the crowd.

Pennington said his company hopes to create as many as 300 more jobs in West Virginia during the next several years. He said the company that formed in 1979 as a Mountain State firm is glad to be home.

“I don’t have a clue why you’ve been in Ohio for so long,” Justice added.