WHEELING - The forest-covered remains of one of Wheeling's most troubled neighborhoods a generation ago has the potential to become an urban farming center, according to members of the Green Wheeling Initiative.
Martin Wach believes the part of the Vineyard Hills area overlooking downtown - site of the now-demolished Lincoln Homes housing project - is a practically ready-made agroforest center that could eventually provide enough income to support about two dozen full-time jobs.
Nearly all of the property in which the Green Wheeling Initiative is interested, about 17.4 acres, belongs to the city, the Wheeling Housing Authority and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, according to Wach. Two sets of stairs that climb from downtown all the way up the hill to Grandview Street frame the site. Largely forgotten, the stairways provide sweeping vistas of the city - and good cardiovascular exercise, if one is so inclined.
Photo by Ian Hicks
Martin Wach of the Green Wheeling Initiative discusses his plan to create an agroforest center in the Vineyard Hills area of Wheeling.
In agroforestry, crops are cultivated beneath a canopy of trees. About 14 acres of forest remains terraced from the hillside's former incarnation as a residential neighborhood.
Though they're in some disrepair, some of the roads that once served that neighborhood still remain beneath the underbrush, and a 3.4-acre open field would provide enough space for almost 300 20-foot by 20-foot raised flower beds, according to Wach.
"We think we can make that whole hill into one of the most beautiful places in Wheeling," he said.
The young forest canopy, Wach believes, provides ideal conditions for cultivating mushrooms and a variety of medicinal plants such as ginseng; black cohosh, sometimes used to treat menstrual issues; and goldenseal, a purported digestive aid cancer treatment.
Even though scientists disagree on the effectiveness of many of these herbal remedies, the Green Wheeling Initiative claims a "rapidly increasing demand" exists for such products.
Tree burls are another potential source of income from the agroforestry concept, Wach said. Although burls are signs of injury or fungus in trees, they are highly coveted by furniture makers. Cutting them can damage a tree, but if done properly, burl wood can fetch anywhere from $75 to $300 per pound in some places.
Wach has a plan. Now, his next step is to convince city leaders to buy into it.
During a recent meeting of the city's Development Committee, Mayor Andy McKenzie, Vice Mayor Eugene Fahey and Councilwoman Gloria Delbrugge agreed to put together a request for proposals for an agroforestry project, giving all an equal chance to get involved.
But Fahey doesn't want to shut off the possibility of other types of future development on that hill. And Delbrugge also expressed concern about the scope of the term "medicinal plants," noting the rising use of marijuana as a prescribed treatment for some chronic illnesses.
"What are we talking about here? ... I'm wondering, when you say 'medicinal plants,' where you're coming from?" she asked.
Wach assured Delbrugge that growing marijuana would not be a part of the group's agroforestry plan.
"I'm sure it would be watched like a hawk, anyway," he said.
Wach said many of the plants needed to get started can be transplanted from the various garden projects the Green Wheeling Initiative has established around Wheeling and at the New Vrindaban Community in Marshall County. There will be some startup costs, he acknowledged, but the Green Wheeling Initiative - led by Wach, Danny Swan, Terry Sheldon and Gene Evans - has received more than $90,000 in grants from the Schenk, Hess and Benedum foundations over the past several years to help establish a local food economy, and he's confident the group can get funding for
"It won't cost the city anything," he said.