WHEELING - The year 2013 was one in which Wheeling went to the dogs.
In a prime example of what can happen when a community gets together behind a common goal, the Friendly City won $25,000 to build a dog park through PetSafe's annual online "Bark for Your Park" contest. Supporters who believe such a facility will make Wheeling a more attractive community in which to live faithfully logged on every day to vote, and their efforts paid off.
It now remains to be seen whether 2014 will be the year Wheeling's dog park becomes a reality.
According to Jeremy Morris, who partnered with fellow dog lover Gregg Boury to start an organization calling itself "Wheeling Needs a Dog Park!" in late 2012, the biggest hurdle left to jump is securing the land on which the pooch playground is to be built. Organizers quickly identified a strip of land along Wheeling Heritage Trail in Elm Grove, near the J.B. Chambers Youth Sports Complex, as a prime location for the park.
That land is under private ownership, however. While Morris said it doesn't appear the owner has plans for the property, a commitment from that person to deed it to the city has yet to be secured.
With a site in place, it will be much easier for his group to determine exactly how much more money they need to raise to make the dog park a reality. But per the contest rules, Morris said, PetSafe will hold Wheeling's prize money for up to three years - human years, not dog years - so running out of time is not a concern.
Dog parks provide a place for canines to socialize without leashes, under the supervision of their owners. In addition to a fence and often an obstacle course, they're also a good way for dog lovers - particularly those who may be new to town - to meet new people.
The "Bark for Your Park" competition is easy to enter. But as Wheeling found out, it's not so easy to win.
Anyone can nominate their community, or any community for that matter, in the contest. But to advance, cities must not only rack up strong vote totals but also demonstrate their local officials are behind the effort.
Following first-round voting, Wheeling was one of the cities that made the cut to be included in the final 15.
That's when things got serious.
To fulfill a contest requirement, a number of pet lovers and their dogs got together to film a commercial, posted to YouTube, convincing one and all why their community is the one most in need of a dog park.
The 34-second video, set to a catchy jingle composed by local musician Jamie Peck, depicted a friendly, active dog at various points of interest in town, including Heritage Port, the Capitol Theatre and WesBanco Arena, where it was filmed hanging out with "Spike" - the Wheeling Nailers mascot who, incidentally, is also a dog.
Wheeling also received help from friends in Huntington, which won the $100,000 grand prize in PetSafe's 2011 competition. City leaders there urged residents to help their fellow West Virginians do the same.
Things got dicey over the competition's final couple of weeks, as Wheeling started to fade in the standings. But a late push helped Wheeling capture one of four runner-up prizes of $25,000. The grand prize of $100,000 this year went to Texarkana, Texas - just one year after sister city Texarkana, Ark., located just across the state line, also won the competition.
Wheeling finished third in the overall standings with more than 105,000 votes - about 39,000 votes behind Texarkana.
"We're extremely excited and very happy with where we finished," Morris said after contest results were announced.