EDITOR'S NOTE: The past 12 months have been interesting - and at times, trying - for local residents, as natural gas drilling, politics, court cases and numerous other issues dominated the daily headlines. Through Sunday, The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register present the Ohio Valley's top 10 stories of 2012, as voted on by the newspapers' editors.
WHEELING - 2012 was a landscape-changing year for the city of Wheeling, as residents saw several prominent downtown buildings and an entire block of East Wheeling leveled to make way for development in 2013 and beyond.
Three-and-a-half years of talk over whether to raze city-owned buildings in the 1100 block of Main and Market streets turned to action in April, and as the year comes to an end the demolition project is nearing completion. Just what shape future development there will take - and how long it will take for residents to see it - remains a mystery.
Photo by Ian Hicks
The empty East Wheeling block between 15th and 16th streets and Wood and McColloch streets is soon to be home to the J.B. Chambers Recreation Park.
And in East Wheeling, the block of homes between 15th and 16th streets and Wood and McColloch streets is gone, with the opening of the planned J.B. Chambers Recreation Park expected sometime next year. The park, which will include a new playground, basketball courts and an artificial turf field suitable for football, soccer, lacrosse and softball, has city officials and some local business owners excited about the potential impact on the neighborhood - but the proposal, and the city's use of eminent domain to carry it out, has not been without plenty of controversy.
One by one, the former Rite Aid, River City Dance Works, G.C. Murphy, Graham's and Velez buildings came down this year, leaving behind only memories of what was once was the heart of a vibrant downtown shopping district.
A portion of the former Feet First building on Market Street is all that remains to be demolished. The city's contractor has filled in much of the site with dirt, and the next steps include spreading grass seed and building a decorative fence along the south end of the site.
In addition to the approximately $1.9 million already spent for property acquisition, demolition and compensating Dr. Manny Velez for moving his dental practice to Elm Grove, the city has $400,000 at its disposal to create a temporary use for the site. Options include green space or a parking area, and council is expected to discuss these options early next year, though Herron stresses these are not permanent solutions.
"Whatever we're doing, it's going to be geared toward marketing the site for development," he said in October.
It appears developers seeking to build on the 1100 block property in the future will have a little more flexibility in what they can offer to potential tenants. Council is set to vote Jan. 2 on a measure recommended by the city Development Committee that would eliminate a decade-old zoning rule that prohibits living space on the ground floor of most downtown buildings.
Officials believe that rule - put in place to preserve downtown's integrity as a commercial hub - may be obsolete as new commercial tenants downtown have been hard to come by with many businesses new to the Wheeling area choosing to locate at The Highlands near Triadelphia instead.
The year began with a courtroom showdown between Wheeling officials defending their plan to build a community sports field in East Wheeling and three property owners attempting to defend their homes against what they argued was a misuse of the city's eminent domain powers. Then-Councilman James Tiu had been a member of that group, but he ultimately reached a settlement with the city to sell his house on that block for $65,000, or about $20,000 more than he would have received as "fair market value" compensation through eminent domain.
During a Jan. 23 hearing in Ohio County Circuit Court, now-retired Judge Arthur Recht sided with the city, declaring there was no solid evidence to support the homeowners' claim that the field's primary beneficiary would be Wheeling Central Catholic High School, operated by the private Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.
Less than a week after that hearing, Jerome Poynton - one of the property owners involved in the dispute - filed to enter the mayor's race in an attempt to unseat incumbent Andy McKenzie in the May municipal election. Poynton came up short but ended up receiving 42 percent of the vote, a show of support he later admitted far exceeded what he at first expected.
In July, McKenzie announced a $750,000 contribution from the J.B. Chambers Foundation, securing for the foundation the naming rights for the field. Although McKenzie and Herron said additional gifts have been secured, it remains the only publicly announced donation for the project.
To date, the city has spent about $1.2 million on the project, including $670,000 for property acquisition, $345,650 for demolition and about $188,000 for design work. There is no timetable for the J.B. Chambers Recreation Park project to go out for bid, as city officials continue to seek financial support for the estimated $3 million project.