WHEELING - When it comes to reversing the fortunes of a struggling downtown and sending it in a new direction, Wheeling Mayor Andy McKenzie doesn't believe he and the rest of City Council were reinventing the wheel when they made the decision to demolish almost an entire block in hopes of attracting new development.
Massive downtown demolition projects such as that taking place in the 1100 block of Main and Market streets have worked elsewhere, and he's confident it will work for Wheeling.
He pointed to Indianapolis, where an effort to level vast areas of largely vacant structures that began more than 20 years ago has resulted in a vibrant hub of business, retail, dining and entertainment. And officials in Charleston, he added, began demolishing vacant structures decades ago to make way for today's economic drivers, such as the Charleston Town Center mall and the Mariott and Embassy Suites hotels.
Workers with Gil Thermes Fencing of Weirton install a wrought iron fence along the south end of the 1100 block demolition site in downtown Wheeling.
Photo by Ian Hicks
Although those cities were working with much larger spaces than a single city block, McKenzie still believes they serve as examples of why demolition of the 1100 block was the right decision - even though it could be long after he and current council members leave office before the full benefits are realized.
"It didn't happen in a year, or two years. ... Someone had to make a decision to change," McKenzie said of cities that have successfully reinvented themselves, partly through demolition. "What they did was a catalyst for great things to happen."
McKenzie acknowledged public criticism of council's approach in tearing down the 1100 block buildings - a couple of which the city owned and sold previously - but he said city officials could no longer stand by and leave the problem for future generations.
"Some people don't like change, and that's what we're getting beat up on ... We're going to continue to make tough decisions and, in the end, (Wheeling's) going to be a better community than what we were given," he said.
Work on the 1100 block has slowed since the G.C. Murphy building came down last fall. Cold, snowy weather is partly to blame, along with an issue that came up during demolition of the Feet First building, the last of the condemned structures that remains partially standing.
According to City Manager Robert Herron, part of that building collapsed onto an addition on the former Howard's Diamond Center, which is not slated for demolition.
Herron said responsibility for rectifying that situation falls solely on the contractor, Dore and Associates of Bay City, Mich. Demolition originally had been expected to wrap up in the fall, but Herron said the delay will not involve any additional expense to taxpayers and the issue is "being worked through."
The rest of the site has been leveled and filled, with pillars for a decorative fence erected along the south end of the site, and grass seed will be spread when weather conditions improve. Keeping in mind that it's unknown how long it will take to develop the 1100 block site, City Council has set aside $400,000 to make the space functional in the interim. Options include temporary parking areas or green space, though council has yet to outline a specific plan.
McKenzie said the space is large enough to accommodate a combination of both parking and green space. He added he often hears from residents that downtown has enough parking, with the Robert C. Byrd Intermodal Center, the city garage at 10th and Market streets and other outdoor lots, but said modern businesses and residents demand convenience.
Vice Mayor Eugene Fahey added tenants at the Horne's building have been asking for additional parking, and if someone buys the former Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp. building on Market Street - currently for sale for $900,000 - that buyer likely will want available parking, as well.
McKenzie said he gives a great deal of credit to former Mayor Nick Sparachane and his council, which developed the framework of the plan to purchase the former Rite Aid, G.C. Murphy and River City Dance Works buildings before their terms ended in 2008.
Councilman Robert "Herk" Henry and Councilwoman Gloria Delbrugge are the only members of that group still serving on council.
The council serving during McKenzie's first term gave the nod to purchase the Feet First Building and Dr. Manny Velez's former dental office as well as compensate Velez for moving his practice to Elm Grove and ordered demolition of those buildings in 2011. To date, about $1.9 million has been spent on the project.
City officials were unable to strike deals with the owners of three adjacent buildings along Market Street - Panda Chinese Kitchen, Vocelli's Pizza and the former Howard's Diamond Center. Herron said there just weren't suitable opportunities for relocation, and city officials are happy to have those businesses stay downtown.
Even with the remaining buildings, McKenzie said the 1100 block will be a large, wide open area with a riverfront view, ready for a developer.
"We have what we have, and we're going to make the best of it," he said.