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Wheeling City Council Hears Criticism Over Proposed 19th Street Property Purchase

Members of Wheeling City Council are considering the purchase industrial property at a former warehouse location at 19th and Jacob streets in Wheeling in order to clean up the site.

WHEELING — Members of Wheeling City Council moved forward Tuesday with the first reading of an ordinance authorizing the purchase of property at 19th and Jacob streets, and they heard criticism about the proposal.

Late last week when council’s agenda was finalized, city officials spoke out about the proposed purchase of the 19th Street property, which previously had been considered as a possible site for the city’s new Public Safety Building.

After the city instead chose to move forward with the purchase of the former Ohio Valley Medical Center campus with the intention of putting a new police department and fire department headquarters there, city leaders still were under an extended option agreement to purchase the 19th Street property, and were still considering it — basically for an opportunity to clean it up.

A former warehouse facility with multiple buildings, the property in question contains approximately 3 acres of land in an industrial and commercially zoned area just off the downtown. The buildings are in deteriorating condition, and there have been environmental concerns at the site, as well.

City officials have noted that the property sits at the main southern entrance to the city, and that’s what travelers see when they exit W.Va. 2 into the downtown area.

If the city owned the property, available grant funding could likely be obtained to help cover the costs of asbestos abatement, environmental remediation and demolition, city leaders noted.

The property is owned by Americo Inc., and the company over which local businessman Frank Calabrese presides. Code enforcement action had been taken against the property owner in the past, city leaders noted, stating Americo had been made to tear down one of the buildings at the site and had replaced broken windows in one of the buildings in the past in order to address the condition of the buildings. However, the buildings have since fallen into significant disrepair and have become what many describe as eyesores in the heart of an area in which neighboring business owners are making major investments and improvements.

The ordinance introduced Tuesday afternoon authorizes City Manager Robert Herron to commence with the purchase of several parcels of property at the 19th Street site and coordinate the execution of any agreements, deeds and other documents for the purchase in the amount of $150,000. Herron had noted the price had dropped after the city chose not to construct its Public Safety Building there.

Council members did not have to cast votes on the ordinance during its first reading, and during Tuesday’s regular city council meeting, no city officials even spoke on the matter.

During a public forum at the end of the meeting, however, one city resident signed up to participate, and he spoke out against the proposed purchase.

Meeting in a virtual setting online because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, council heard from Wheeling resident Tim Dolan of Seventh Street.

“I’d like to know the (return on investment), the right to purchase price, the cost of remediation, the tear-down costs, the penalties that have been assessed, the penalties that have been received,” Dolan asked city officials during the online meeting.

Many of Dolan’s questions had already been addressed publicly by city officials late last week. The city manager noted that once the site is cleared, the assessed value of the flat parcel would be approximately $400,000. Installing a vapor barrier before construction to address environmental concerns is expected to cost about $100,000, and asbestos abatement and demolition are expected to cost $250,000.

If the city purchases the property and is successful in obtaining a loan/grant from the West Virginia DEP, the amount of the funding is expected to total around $300,000.

Since details of the proposed purchase were made public, a number of city residents took to social media and criticized the city for purchasing so many vacant buildings. In recent years the city also purchased buildings in the 1400 block of Market Street, which Wheeling still owns. Citizens also insisted that Calabrese should be held responsible for maintaining his properties, not profiting from his neglected buildings at the taxpayers’ expense.

On Tuesday, Dolan also asked if a $500,000 allocation for property demolition — a measure which members of the Finance Committee of Wheeling City Council discussed just before Tuesday’s council meeting — was for the 19th Street property.

“Sir this is public comment not normally public question time,” Mayor Glenn Elliott told Dolan. “I can tell you the $500,000 authorization was unrelated to this project.”

“Ok, how many violations have been sent and paid?” Dolan asked.

“Sir, I’m not in a position to answer your questions here today, you’re welcome to make public comment,” the mayor said.

“Ok. I’m against buying a toxic dump that we have no idea what the costs are going to be involved,” Dolan said. “People have said we have brownfield money, I’ve confirmed today that’s not the case. I don’t know how we can have brownfield money for something we don’t own. I have no idea why we would buy that place. It’s a toxic dump. And I understand we can do a lot of things that could make the city look a lot better. But this is just not something we should be doing.”

Dolan noted that the city still owns the buildings in the 1400 block of Market Street, where previously announced plans of a private sector developer have not yet taken shape.

“We haven’t even gotten rid of those buildings where the — whatever you want to call it — porn shop is, or anything else,” Dolan said. “We haven’t gotten rid of those yet. I don’t know why we’re in the rental business.

“I’ve asked several council people and the mayor directly about these questions, and have not gotten any information back. There’s a lot of people on Facebook who are definitely against this purchase.”

Although city officials did not address the legislation during the meeting, council members did issue statements about the proposal on Tuesday.

“The $150,000 that council has agreed upon is significantly less than the initial asking price,” Vice Mayor Chad Thalman said. “This is an opportunity for us to take over this site for future economic development.”

Councilwoman Rosemary Ketchum, who represents Ward 3 in which the property is situated, has said she supports the proposal.

“I believe one of the most important tasks of any municipal government is to create and promote economic opportunity for their communities while cleaning up blight wherever possible,” Ketchum said. “With the acquisition of the 19th Street property, we are able to work toward both of these critical priorities which helps encourage future success in our neighborhoods.”

The ordinance to purchase the 19th Street property is expected to receive a second and final reading during the next city council meeting on Aug. 18, when council members are expected to vote on the legislation.

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