WHEELING - A new generation is yearning to be able to grab their morning coffee, head to work and pick up dinner, all without getting behind the wheel of a car. Many of today's up-and-comers want to live in downtown areas - a trend Wheeling hopes to capitalize on in the years ahead.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, communities large and small saw more people move to city centers between 2000 and 2010. And Dayton, Ohio, the Associated Press reports, can't develop downtown housing fast enough to meet the current demand.
When it comes to housing, according to local real estate broker Dea Kennen, past generations demanded space, and lots of it - but that doesn't seem to be a priority among today's young professionals.
Photo by Ian Hicks
The Absure Tower in Wheeling is one of many downtown buildings for sale. Demand is growing nationwide for downtown living space.
"They're all about community. They like to be able to walk to things," Kennen said. "That's very appealing. ... They don't need the large square footage area."
With vacant buildings and "For Sale" signs abundant in what once was a vibrant business district, Wheeling isn't exactly ahead of the curve in taking advantage of that desire. But the trend hasn't escaped the notice of city leaders, according to Mayor Andy McKenzie.
McKenzie said he's constantly hearing from realtors with clients who want to rent or buy downtown or in East Wheeling. He pointed out developers have had some success filling apartments in North Wheeling and the Centre Market area in recent years.
"Our battle is the core of downtown," he said.
There are certainly obstacles to overcome. As Kennen said, a main reason downtown living is attractive is the proximity to life's necessities - and downtowns typically are the center of cities' business activity.
But in Wheeling, Business and Occupation Tax revenue from the Elm Grove area has eclipsed that from downtown in 11 of the last 15 quarters, according to the city's monthly financial report. The last time downtown outperformed Elm Grove in B&O revenue for two consecutive quarters was during the last six months of 2009.
Businesses may see a lack of people downtown as a detractor to locating there. But those looking for a place to live may avoid downtown because of a lack of shops, restaurants and other demands - creating a classic "chicken or the egg" conundrum when it comes to promoting downtown living.
"That is part of the problem. ... I wish we could blink and it would be done," Kennen said.
McKenzie believes planned projects such as the J.B Chambers Recreation Park in East Wheeling and upgrades to WesBanco Arena eventually will encourage private investment downtown. And Kennen said West Virginia Northern Community College's expansion at the corner of 16th and Market streets and the planned relocation of Wheeling Jesuit University's physical therapy program into the Stone Center on Market Plaza have the potential to increase desire both to live and do business downtown.
"That to me is exciting. ... People need to know that the downtown is coming back," she said. "It's going to be a different-looking place. ...
"Who knows - maybe someday we'll actually see some waterfront property available in Wheeling. I hope I live to see it," Kennen added.
Earlier this year, City Council struck down a zoning restriction against living space on the ground floor of downtown buildings, at the request of developers who said it would make renovating and maintaining those buildings more cost-effective. The city is also trying to sell several vacant properties downtown and in East Wheeling, potentially at bargain-basement prices, provided a buyer can submit a realistic plan for development.
But a market gap remains between the heavy up-front cost to renovate vacant buildings, some of which have sat empty for many years, and potential rent income that space may generate. Wheeling's Historic Landmarks Commission has shown interest in tackling that problem, but is still looking for a feasible solution.
The commission had proposed using federal Community Development Block Grant money to help bridge that gap, but the idea was scrapped for a number of reasons, including a declining trend in CDBG money the city receives each year as well as low- to moderate-income rent restrictions by which landlords accepting such funds would have to abide.