Over the past several decades, Wheeling's park system has become the envy of communities many times its size, according to Eriks Janelsins - thanks primarily to a longstanding tradition of support from those of all ages and backgrounds.
Janelsins, president of the Oglebay Foundation, spoke to Wheeling Rotary Club members Tuesday in one of his first public speaking engagements since being named to the position in late September. He said he is in the midst of an intensive training process, working closely with former foundation President G. Randolph "Randy" Worls, who will continue as the foundation's chief executive officer and chairman of the board.
Janelsins's new responsibilities include expanding the foundation's contributor base and increasing contributions from existing donors. He said private contributions large and small have sustained the park system, allowing it to operate with minimal assistance from city taxpayers.
When local businessmen Charles Sonneborn and Louis Haller acquired the Wheeling Park property in December 1924, Janelsins recalled, they offered to give it up for public use rather than use it for personal gain, with a couple of conditions - the community had to raise $350,000 in about two weeks to buy and equip the park, and place it under non-political management - what was to become the Wheeling Park Commission. The goal was reached on Christmas Eve of that year, thanks to 170 individual donations.
Those pledges, Janelsins said, ranged from a $100,000 donation by prominent businessman W.E. Stone to a group of eighth-graders who came together and contributed $10 to the effort.
"From the beginning, it was everyone working together," he said, noting a similar spirit was exhibited a few years later when city leaders agreed to accept Earl Oglebay's bequest of Waddington Farm along Bethany Pike.
Today, Janelsins said, Oglebay Park remains a place of discovery for area youth, perhaps through a first fishing experience, or even a first job. And the park employs about 1,000 people, drawing a million visitors annually and contributing about $750,000 in annual hotel occupancy tax revenue to the city.
Janelsins acknowledged that over the years, the way people use the parks has changed. He doubts, for example, that anyone 20 years ago could have foreseen the demand for wireless Internet and access to 4G mobile networks at Oglebay's facilities.
But he stressed the foundation's basic mission will remain the same.
"Our vision is providing the highest quality park system in the world, for everyone and forever," said Janelsins.
Janelsins has lived in Wheeling for the past 11 years. He was named director of the Schrader Environmental Center at Oglebay in 2003 and served in that capacity until being named Oglebay Foundation president.