With Mortgage Paid, More Money Available for Upkeep, Promotion of Capitol in Wheeling

Photo by Scott McCloskey Patrons stand in line to enter the Capitol Theatre in Wheeling in this undated photo.

WHEELING — Completing payment of the Capitol Theatre’s $1.9 million mortgage now frees up more money for the facility’s upkeep and for promoting the local area as a travel destination.

The Wheeling-Ohio County Convention and Visitors Bureau, which owns the theater, paid off the 10-year mortgage, on schedule, in June. To celebrate that achievement, a symbolic “mortgage burning” ceremony was held Wednesday outside the Capitol.

Finishing the $22,555 monthly payments “gives us a little more breathing room to do the things we need to do,” said Frank O’Brien, CVB executive director. “There’s going to be some needs, smaller projects, that the theater can accomplish now that money is available.”

Needs of the 91-year-old theater are ongoing, but O’Brien is confident that upkeep “won’t require that much of a financial obligation every single month.”

Next on tap at the Capitol is the installation of a new fly system, which is the equipment used to lower or raise backdrops or sets on stage. The project, costing $275,000, is going to start soon and is expected to take about a year to complete, he said.

“That fly system is original to the building. It basically doesn’t meet today’s needs,” he said.

Since purchasing the then-closed theater in September 2009, the CVB has spent nearly $4.5 million from its revenue sources and grant funds to preserve and restore the downtown facility. Calling the Capitol “a historic icon,” he said, “It will always be part of the community now.”

The CVB has an operating agreement with the Greater Wheeling Sports and Entertainment Authority to manage the theater. The authority also runs the city-owned WesBanco Arena.

Having a variety of programming is paramount to the success of the theater, which the CVB regards as an economic driver for the area. “We want it to be sustainable, not a burden on the community or the CVB,” he said.

Currently, the Capitol operates as a rental venue, but O’Brien would like the theater to venture into offering some events on its own.

At present, outside promoters pay rent for use of the theater and are responsible for the cost of production, hiring stagehands and security personnel, and all marketing costs. In turn, the Capitol receives a rental fee and revenue from food and beverages sold at events.

“We have zero risk that way. We still get our money. It’s a potentially risky business,” he said.

However, O’Brien said, “Perhaps we could put some money into a risk pool and program the theater to some extent — add some shows that the theater is responsible for talent fees, production fees, marketing fees. If it’s hugely successful, the potential is to increase that risk fund … Hopefully, if we do it right, it could replenish itself based on whatever profit is made from that show.”

With the Capitol’s mortgage paid, the CVB will have more money to fulfill its primary mission to advertise and market attractions in Wheeling and Ohio County as destinations for visitors, he said. A large part of its marketing targets people in a 50-mile region outside Wheeling.

The organization also provides marketing support to various events, including First Friday, Centre Market’s concert series, fairs and festivals at Heritage Port.

The CVB isn’t a city or county agency but, under state law, it receives 50 percent of hotel-motel taxes collected by the taxing authorities.

Occupancy by oil and gas workers has fueled the local hotel-motel tax revenue over the past decade.

Because of an increase in transient and temporary workers streaming into the area for the oil and gas industry, O’Brien said the CVB’s hotel-motel tax revenue went up 100 percent in 2009, the year when the bureau bought the Capitol.

“We were able to continue to do what we were doing and absorb the debt service (for the Capitol’s mortgage) without changing much of anything, because of the oil and gas revenue,” he said. “From 2009 to 2014, we were all doing pretty well.”

With increased demand, hotels and motels charged higher room rates, which translated into higher room tax revenue. A 6 percent local hotel-motel tax and a 6 percent state tax are attached to each room rate.

However, when the selling price for oil dropped below $50 a barrel, pipeliners — and a substantial part of the hotel-motel tax revenue — left the area.

“From 2014 to 2016, it was a little tighter for the CVB,” he said.

In 2016, oil prices rose again and more oil and gas resources were found in the area.

“We’re still riding the wave of high occupancy rates because of oil and gas,” he said.

If a proposed cracker plant is built in Belmont County, it could bring thousands of construction workers, pipefitters, welders, infrastructure builders and designers to the area for up to five years. If some of the transient workers stay in hotels, “that’s a game changer, too,” he added.

“Maybe Wheeling and the Ohio Valley get lucky every 100 or 150 years,” O’Brien said, noting that the city had a century-long wave of prosperity after the National Road’s arrival in the early 1800s.

Now, he said, “With the second largest concentration of oil and gas in the world under us, it’s a game changer for us again, like it was 150 years ago.”

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