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Council OK’s Purchase of OVMC

Wheeling City Manager Robert Herron and Mayor Glenn Elliott, from left, take part in Tuesday night’s regular meeting of Wheeling City Council. The meeting was the first in-person council meeting since the COVID-19 pandemic caused public gatherings to be prohibited and forced city officials to conduct business online over the past two months. Wearing of masks and strict social distancing restrictions were enforced during the in-person public meeting Tuesday.

WHEELING — After crunching numbers for several weeks and weighing the pros and cons, members of Wheeling City Council approved a purchase agreement for the former Ohio Valley Medical Center property Tuesday night.

During their first in-person meeting since the coronavirus pandemic shut down public gatherings at the end of March, council members pulled the trigger on what was described as “probably the biggest decision this council will make.” Council voted unanimously to move forward with the purchase, although Councilman Ken Imer was not in attendance.

Mayor Glenn Elliott and many of the members of city council noted that after mulling the proposal for several weeks, they had come to the conclusion that the benefits outweigh the risks in the purchase of the sprawling hospital property.

During previous council meetings, the ordinance to purchase OVMC was tabled on multiple occasions as city leaders sought answers to additional questions about the properties and the purchase. City officials voted to bring the item back on the floor for a vote Tuesday night. Had they not done so, by rule the ordnance would have died for a lack of action, and council likely would not have been able to bring back the matter for consideration before the June 30 deadline requested by the property’s current owners, Medical Properties Trust or MPT, which sought to complete the transaction before the new fiscal year for tax purposes.

The city will acquire the property for closing costs and current taxes owed on the property. In all the transaction — including taxes, closing costs and legal fees — is expected to cost around $1.11 million. After the city takes ownership, there will be a number of variable expenses looming in terms of holding costs associated with maintaining the buildings, razing some of the older, outdated ones and repairing others.

City leaders stressed the fact that if more than $1 million in taxes is paid on the property, the city will receive approximately 58% of that money back through its Tax Increment Financing District plan. The city’s plan to create new headquarters for its police and fire departments will in all likelihood be re-focused on doing so on the OVMC campus, which will reportedly save nearly $2.5 million over the cost of building a new Public Safety Building from the ground up at a former warehouse site on 19th Street, which had been considered. This will allow for about $1 million to be used for renovations to other existing fire stations throughout the city, resulting in a total of $1.5 million savings in opting for the OVMC site over the 19th Street location.

Another benefit of moving forward with the purchase, city leaders said, would be the fact that the city will have a say in how the buildings will be marketed to the private sector and used in the future. Instead of potentially remaining vacant for years, the buildings on the OVMC campus are expected to be put to their best possible use at the direction of the city.

“To say this has been a big decision is an understatement,” Councilman Dave Palmer said. “We have taken our time. We have gone through the numbers. We’ve thrown out so many ‘what ifs,’ and while there are some unknowns going forward, I think the worst unknown is ‘what if we do nothing?’ I’m prepared to do something.”

Councilwoman Wendy Scatterday noted that the sprawling property includes approximately 709,586 square feet of building space on the campus of the former hospital, which served the Wheeling and Ohio Valley community for many decades before closing for good last September. When looking at the price the city is paying for that volume of property, there is great economic value, Scatterday noted.

“It is an epic decision,” Scatterday said. “I have a lot of concern about that much square footage, and I’m very concerned about the carrying costs moving forward. There are really a lot of tradeoffs here.

“From my perspective, a really important word here is stewardship, because the city doesn’t want to own these buildings. The idea here is to steward them through a transition process so that they can continue to have a successful life into the future and to be an asset to the community on a whole. So I think there is reason to be optimistic, because I think it is more likely than not that these buildings will have another life. Maybe not all of the buildings.”

Scatterday said if certain buildings are considered for demolition, they should be razed immediately to reduced carrying costs.

The purchase opens the door for the city to move forward with its Public Safety Building plan on the OVMC campus and save money in the process, officials noted. The Valley Professional Building on Chapline Street is being eye for renovation as a new police headquarters. Last week, City Manager Robert Herron said the former nurses building on the OVMC campus would likely be demolished, and a new fire department headquarters may be built there. The city is expected to issue bonds for the renovation and construction of these new facilities, and funds to pay these bonds is being generated by the new City Service Fee — or User Fee — which went into effect this year. Each person who works in the city pays $2 per week toward the new User Fee, and half of that funding is designated to go toward the new Public Safety Building.

Officials have stressed that there has not been a vocal movement from constituents against the purchase of OVMC.

“I look at this both offensively and defensively,” Elliott said. “There are opportunities for us to move forward with them, but I think there are downsides and risks to doing nothing. What if the city does not act? What happens to those buildings down the road? The city is taking some affirmative steps to almost play defense here and make sure the city does not end up with a big chunk of Center Wheeling going dark for a long period of time.”

Elliott noted that the biggest concern eyed by council members has not been the purchase cost, but rather the holding costs of the property.

“There has been some private sector interest in various parts of these facilities,” the mayor said. “Our goal going forward is not to sit on these properties more than we have to. Our goal is get this back into the private sectors’ hands in one way or another.”

Officials noted that the new members of council — including newly elected members Rosemary Ketchum, Ben Seidler and Jerry Skavounakis, who take office July 1 — will play key roles in making many important decisions about the future of the OVMC property in the coming months.

“City council has really been involved from day one through executive sessions, asking a wide-ranging and very thorough questions that we’ve been able to address through the due diligence process,” Herron said. “The pressure is going to be on formulating a project and funding it.”

Herron noted that the city has set aside $4 million in Tax Increment Finance District funding for renovations to the Center Wheeling Parking Garage adjacent to OVMC. There also is $1.5 million in TIFD funding available for use to cover the acquisition costs for OVMC. The city manager also noted that the governor’s office and RED (Regional Economic Development Partnership) have already been discussing with the city ways to seek additional funding sources to assist with efforts to repurpose OVMC.

“This is a community project,” Palmer said, noting that the city will call on the county and state, as well as the people of the community also to get behind the repurposing of the OVMC site. “We’re going to need assistance. While we are taking the lead on this, we are going to expect assistance from other entities, and we’re going to ask for it. I think if we can get this project up and running and brings some services back to the people of Wheeling, I think it’s going to be a great thing.”

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