Kurt Zende Brings New Ideas To Wheeling Chamber

WHEELING – A little elbow grease and a lot of paint just might be what it takes to inspire a business district and bring in new customers and businesses, according to Kurt Zende, the new president of the Wheeling Area Chamber of Commerce.

Zende previously served as an economic development specialist for the city of Wheeling, focussing on revitalizing the city’s Centre Market area.

The Centre Market blossomed during Zende’s tenure, and he explained it all started with some paint and “the best employee in the city” Anthony “Spike” Wells – head custodian at Centre Market.

“We painted the lower Market House by ourselves – where Coleman’s and Valley Cheese are,” Zende said. “The city contracted with Karras Painting for the upper house. Then we went on and painted some street lamps – just to get the aesthetics where they needed to be.

“This gave the impetus for the landlords to do their facades and interiors. Then we marketed together and did events together. It became a regional destination.”

He said Centre Market is fortunate to have “good business owners and building owners who got it.”

“I just happened to be the guy managing it, but I had a lot of help,” Zende said. “And you don’t get a better boss than (Wheeling City Manager) Bob Herron.”

Zende’s career and mission to improve local business areas began in 1988 when he was first out of college. He was hired as the Main Street manager for development at the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce, and would transition into a position with the Jefferson County Economic Development Authority.

His boss at the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce was Terry Sterling, who would move on to become the president of the Wheeling Area Chamber of Commerce in 1995. Zende followed Sterling to Wheeling, and worked for him at the Wheeling chamber until 2000.

Along the way, Zende bought into a number of Subway restaurants in the area. He sold these after accepting the position as economic specialist with the city.

He continued in that job until late 2021, when he was tapped as the new president of the Wheeling chamber.

To be successful, a person has “to have a thick skin,” Zende said.

“You can’t be afraid to test the waters and do things out of the box,” he explained. “And nothing can replace hard work.

“You shouldn’t be too hard on yourself. Accept constructive criticism, and move forward.”

Businesses and the individuals who run them also shouldn’t be afraid to continually reinvent themselves, according to Zende.

“There’s always something new,” he said. “You have to keep up to date, and I’m getting there. What we don’t know, we outsource and bring in.”

And how does Zende stay ahead of the game?

“I read a lot,” he said. “I look at what’s out there, and what’s upcoming. I look for ways to find new information, and use new technology. I look to see what is coming out and if it applies to how we do business at the chamber.

“Sometimes, maybe, I don’t understand until I get a full grasp. Then I think maybe our membership can really utilize it.”

Zende added he looks for technology that makes it easier for members to market themselves. This might include member-to-member marketing or ways for them to get their message out to the public at large.

“I always wonder how we can be the online community everybody gravitates toward,” he said.

Zende sees opportunity following the pandemic to target those elsewhere who want to live in communities where there are fewer people and less stress.

“We need to bring some people in from the outside who aren’t happy with the chaos going on in big cities,” he said. “That turmoil just might bring people there, and technology plays a role in that.

“You have to look at the analytics. Maybe somebody lived here before, or their families did. The question now is how do we market ourselves to bring people in?”

Zende said the area has “such a wonderful quality of life,” and that it can draw upon such amenities as Oglebay Park, WesBanco Arena, the Capitol Theatre, Heritage Port and the Wheeling Nailers.

“And our convention and visitors bureau is the best in the state,” he added. “They get the word out.”

The chamber is hoping to get the word out for its membership via a new website that “will do some fantastic things,” according to Zende. He said the new website should be ready in a couple of weeks.

The chamber also is concentrating on building relationships with other groups in the community, such as Wheeling Heritage, the city of Wheeling and Ohio County.

Zende said the chamber is also planning a workforce symposium in conjunction with local colleges to address the issue of workforce needs.

“This is a problem worldwide,” he explained. “COVID hit, and baby boomers decided it was a good time to give up their jobs. Now we don’t have the replacement generation coming to fill those jobs.

“We are in a numbers crunch. Over time, I think it will be remedied. It’s not endemic to Wheeling, but we’re trying to find solutions.”