WHEELING - The latest chapter of Jerome Poynton's life - one that included a months-long legal battle to save his home from the wrecking ball and an impromptu mayoral bid that came closer to succeeding than he ever thought possible - is nearing its end.
Poynton said he has agreed with Wheeling officials on a deadline of midnight Tuesday to leave his 136 15th St. home, one of three the city acquired through eminent domain earlier this year to build a sports field in East Wheeling. City Manager Robert Herron this morning said he could not speak about Poynton's deadline to vacate the premises, noting the two sides had a confidentiality agreement in place.
Now that Poynton has lost both his house and his bid to lead the city that forced him to leave it - McKenzie defeated Poynton 3,214 votes to 2,357 in Tuesday's election - he knows his only option is to move on. But he still maintains the historical value of his and many of the old homes that will be or already have been demolished far outweighs the potential benefits of a sports field.
Photo by Ian Hicks
Wheeling resident Jerome Poynton prepares to leave his 135 15th St. home, which the city acquired earlier this year through eminent domain. Per an agreement reached earlier this week, Poynton said he must be out by midnight Tuesday.
"I'm very sad about the loss of these homes. ... I think it was a very big mistake and the city's going in the wrong direction," said Poynton, adding the buildings being torn down are "the homes of the people that built Wheeling."
With a stack of cardboard boxes containing books, vinyl records, artwork and numerous other curiosities he's acquired through the years now serving as the centerpiece to his living room, Poynton reflected on the trials of the past year.
"You fight for freedoms. And I was fighting for the freedom to live in my own home," he said of his motivation to resist the city's eminent domain proceedings and his subsequent run for mayor.
As of the last day of the election filing period, only the incumbent McKenzie had filed for the mayoral race. After trying to convince others to file and upset over what he saw as a lack of public input on the East Wheeling project, Poynton said he decided that afternoon to enter the race himself and run on a platform of increased openness in government. He admitted that, particularly in the beginning, he believed his chances were slim.
"I thought I'd get 20 votes. ... But immediately after I signed up, all kinds of people came forward wanting to help," he said.
And as he started knocking on doors and bringing his message to the public, Poynton sensed his campaign gaining some traction.
"It was so great to meet so many people in Wheeling that felt the same way as I did ... and I think my vote total represents that," said Poynton. "It was not a fluke."
"I was hoping to create a dialogue in the city. ... Do they want the city to be run or ruled? And I think I created that dialogue," he added.
Poynton acknowledges that as mayor, he only would have had one vote. But as Election Day drew nearer, he hoped that a victory would have sent a strong message to city officials and he might have been able to change the course of the East Wheeling plan and save at least some of the homes that are being razed.
"It would have been a very difficult task to turn that ship around, and I was going to give up four years of my life to do it," he said.
As for what's next, Poynton soon will be taking up residence in Warwood, although he expects he'll be "moving around a little bit." He anticipates producing and editing a play in New York, where he lived before coming to Wheeling to get a break from the hectic life of the big city, and heading across the ocean to work on a home he's restoring in Tarquinia, Italy, just northwest of Rome. He's also co-producing an independent film, "That's Beautiful Frank," with former tenant Kenneth Peralta. The film is in post-production, according to the Internet Movie Database website.
But wherever the near future may take him, Poynton - a bibliophile to the core - noted his library will remain in the Friendly City.
"My home is where my books are, and that's in Wheeling," said Poynton.
City leaders announced the sports field project in 2010, and in May 2011 City Council voted to authorize eminent domain proceedings against the property owners who refused to sell. That list at one time included Councilman James Tiu, but he reached an "amicable agreement" with the city to sell his 132 15th St. house just days in advance of a January hearing in Ohio County Circuit Court during which the property owners attempted to convince Circuit Judge Arthur Recht that the sports field project would primarily benefit private rather than public interests - namely, the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and Wheeling Central Catholic High School.
Recht said there wasn't sufficient evidence to that effect, however, and upheld the city's use of eminent domain powers.
On March 23, the city ordered Poynton to leave his home by April 30. The city never enforced that order, however, despite the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals' denial of an emergency stay of the city's right of entry to the property. Poynton continued to maintain his primary focus was on running his campaign, not moving, and said he signed the agreement to be out by the end of Tuesday on Monday afternoon, the day before the election.
To date, the city has spent $670,000 to acquire and abate the properties in the block of Wood Street between 15th and 16th streets. Sources for the remainder of the estimated $2.5 million total project cost have not been identified, but officials said they are confident the sports field project will proceed.
In addition to an artificial turf field for soccer, lacrosse and football and a running track, the project includes lighting and upgrades to the adjacent Elks Playground.
McKenzie previously said the project is not just about a sports field, but about rehabilitating a dilapidated neighborhood and improving residents' quality of life. He said the field will be patterned after a similar recreational facility in Erie, Pa., which turned a decaying section of town into a vibrant area, and operated in a similar fashion as the J.B. Chambers Youth Sports Complex off Interstate 470 in Elm Grove.