WHEELING - A $750,000 donation from the J.B. Chambers Memorial Foundation is expected to be the first of many significant contributions to the effort to build a sports field in East Wheeling.
Mayor Andy McKenzie and other city leaders joined foundation representatives to make that announcement in front of a sea of bricks from demolished buildings at 16th and Wood streets, near the southwest corner of the future facility that will be known as the J.B. Chambers Recreation Park.
But despite that contribution, McKenzie did not rule out the possibility that public funding could be used in support of the multimillion-dollar project.
Photo by Ian Hicks
Mayor Andy McKenzie announces a donation to the East Wheeling sports field project. He is joined by foundation Executive Director Emily Fisher, and standing behind them are Councilmen David Miller, left, and Don Atkinson.
"It is my personal goal, not the city's goal, for this to be 100-percent donor-funded," McKenzie said Tuesday evening. "Today was one of what we plan to be many announcements by donors to fund the project."
Where there now is a pile of rubble and shells of vacant buildings waiting to be razed, McKenzie expects to see a brand new playground, two new basketball courts and a versatile, artificial turf field suitable for football, soccer, lacrosse and softball by next spring.
But he knows none of that would be possible without money, and lots of it - $2.5 million to 3 million total, according to McKenzie. So the city turned to an old friend in the J.B. Chambers Memorial Foundation, which partnered with Wheeling years ago in opening the J.B. Chambers Youth Sports Complex off Interstate 470 in Elm Grove.
"The plan is to have the park open next spring," McKenzie said later Tuesday. "It is my personal goal to raise this money. We could continue to raise money even after it is open."
The foundation's donation still leaves about $2.25 million to be raised. McKenzie didn't reveal any additional funding sources Tuesday, but said he anticipates making further announcements regarding contributions in the coming weeks, possibly in August, after finalizing details with prospective donors.
"These are people who want to see the city move forward. ... I've always felt that this needed to be a community project," he said.
McKenzie said while he cannot quantify the project's future impact on the city with a specific dollar value, he believes the future park already is bringing excitement and hope to the city. He cited developments headed by Mike Ferns at the former Robinson Auto dealership on 16th Street and the Vandalia Heritage housing project as other examples of how the park project is helping to redevelop the East Wheeling area.
The mayor added that the project will eliminate slum and blight.
To date, the city has spent about $1.2 million on property acquisition - including that of three parcels on 15th Street via eminent domain - demolition and project design. However, McKenzie said Wheeling leaders will continue to seek contributions until they obtain the entire project cost, allowing them to reimburse city coffers for the expenses thus far.
"That may take years to happen, but this is a huge step forward," McKenzie said of the gift announced Tuesday.
The J.B. Chambers Foundation saw a need in the community and that made it an easy decision to step forward, said Executive Director Emily Fisher.
"We love to partner with the city of Wheeling. ... We know what a good job they do," Fisher said, adding she hopes the foundation's contribution will build momentum for further donations from the community. "I think it was important to us to impact the area."
Among those looking forward to that potential impact are nearby business owners Lance Miller of Neely's Grocery and Perry Wade, who operates Convenient Food Mart. As the surrounding neighborhood declined, they said, it became clear something needed to change - and both are hoping for a surge in sales once the field opens.
"They're tearing down a lot of the history, but ... yesterday's history and tomorrow's a mystery," Miller said. "It was a great neighborhood at one time with a lot of good people."
In describing the eventual finished product, City Manager Robert Herron said the new playground equipment will be centrally located, with the turf field to the west and basketball courts to the southeast. Restrooms and storage facilities will be located north of the playground, and a grassy slope overlooking the field will serve as a seating area, with a flat area at the top of the slope suitable for lawn chairs or wheelchairs.
Bleacher seating eventually could be built on that slope if the need arises, Herron said.
"We're very proud again to be partnering with the J.B. Chambers Foundation on a project that we feel will be very beneficial to the children of this city," he added.
Wheeling officials unveiled the sports field plan in 2010 as the city continued to acquire the necessary property.
The proposal's fate ultimately was decided in court, as property owners Jerome Poynton, Helen Adelson and David Coleman challenged the city's eminent domain proceedings, arguing the field would be primarily for the benefit of the private Wheeling Central Catholic High School.
Then-Councilman James Tiu owned one of the homes that was part of the eminent domain dispute; however, he reached an agreement with the city and sold the property.
Early this year, Circuit Judge Arthur Recht dismissed those claims and declared the project could move forward.