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City Officials Ponder Future of Nelson Jordan Center

Wheeling Searches for New Director of Parks and Recreation

Located on Charles Street just off of 12th and Jacob streets near the downtown, the Nelson Jordan Center is the only city-owned recreation center in Wheeling. (Photo by Eric Ayres)

WHEELING — The only city-operated recreation center in Wheeling marked its 70th anniversary this year, and with needed improvements in mind, city leaders are pondering options for the future of the facility and the programs it offers to the community.

Later this week, members of Wheeling City Council are expected to tour the Nelson Jordan Center, located on Charles Street, just off of 12th and Jacob streets in East Wheeling between the downtown and the Grandview/Vineyard Hill area.

Missing from that tour will be a city of Wheeling director of Parks and Recreation. Two weeks ago Jesse Mestrovic, who had served as the city’s Parks and Recreation director since the beginning of 2019, stepped down in order to pursue a new career opportunity in Loveland, Colo. The city is currently seeking candidates to fill the director’s position.

Discussions have been taking place regarding the future of the Nelson Jordan Center, its funding and programming, and whether or not the center should be renovated or relocated to a more modern facility.

Wheeling City Councilwoman Rosemary Ketchum said she became aware of the needs of the Nelson Jordan Center earlier this year while meeting with Ward 3 residents during her election campaign. Many constituents expressed concerns about the need to bring improvements to the aging facility.

The 70-year-old Nelson Jordan Center in East Wheeling is the only recreation center owned and operated by the city. Officials in Wheeling are discussing options for the future of the aging facility, with hopes of bringing expanded programming and physical improvements to the center, whether it is through renovations or a relocation of the facility. (Photo by Eric Ayres)

“Unfortunately, throughout the past few decades, the Nelson Jordan Center has not received the attention that I think it deserves,” Ketchum said, who brought this topic to the forefront earlier this month as an agenda item during a meeting of the Health and Recreation Committee of Council.

Opened in 1950 during the era of segregation, the center provided members of the local black community a place to exercise and congregate. Today, the center continues to be used on a regular basis, with community members playing basketball, exercising, practicing mixed martial arts and boxing, and participating in other activities.

With a limited budget, programming has been limited in recent years, and despite its solid structure, the building’s accommodations leave much room for improvement, with no air conditioning, poor lighting, no ADA compliance, no centralized entrance or sign-in area and a lack of security equipment.

“I think the Nelson Jordan Center deserves our full and focused attention,” Ketchum said. “I’m dedicated to working on the center with the most community-based approach possible. The new Parks and Rec director, whomever that may be, will play a critical role in helping us improve the center.”

Rod Lee, who has worked at the Nelson Jordan Center staff for 24 years, serves as center director.

A mural on an outside wall of the Nelson Jordan Center promotes "Strength Through Love." (Photo by Eric Ayres)

“I joined the recreation staff in 1996,” Lee said. “From our perspective, we’ve always wanted to provide a place for the most vulnerable and the most at-risk youth in the community.”

The original name of the center when it opened in 1950 was the Colored Recreation Center, Lee noted. In the mid-1950s when segregation ended, the city changed the facility’s name to the Charles Street Recreation Center. The original director of the facility was Nelson Jordan. Upon his death, the city changed the name of the recreation center in his honor in 1969.

“It’s always been part of the community,” Lee said. “A lot of people my age have a sense of ownership to the place, because we grew up there — because of what it meant to the community as a whole.”

Lee said for decades, the center has been a central gathering place for people in the surrounding neighborhoods.

“The last 20-plus years, we’ve operated primarily on a (Community Development Block Grant) budget,” Lee said. “It has been there for 70 years. We’ve been active in the community for providing recreation, social and educational programs. It’s a diamond in the rough, but we deal with the cards that we’ve been handed, and we try to make the best of it.”

The Nelson Jordan Center was named after the city recreation center's original director. (Photo by Eric Ayres)

Lee said the center needs the kind of budget that will allow them to offer better programming at the facility.

“We’ve been strapped,” he said. “I think our budget is around $32,000 now.”

Volunteers help keep the center in shape, and the city’s operations department is in charge of facility maintenance, but the need for additional funding comes from voids in the operating budget and any kind of budget for capital improvements.

“We’ve had engineers in to look at the place,” Lee said. “The building is solid and sound. It’s not going anywhere.”

Anywhere from 15-25 people, typically local youths, can be found in the center at any given time lifting weights, playing basketball, exercising, practicing sports or hanging out to recreate, officials said.

The Nelson Jordan Center has served the community in the East Wheeling area since 1950. (Photo by Eric Ayres)

“When you see the facility, it’s woefully in need of some love and some care, and some resources,” Wheeling Mayor Glenn Elliott said. “I think a decision needs to be made as to whether the Nelson Jordan Center — as is — is going to be rehabbed and improved or whether it’s going to be relocated.”

Elliott noted that the former Clay School property has a gymnasium and an auditorium. He said developers from the private sector have looked at the facility in the past, but pieces have not come together to get a project rolling. The mayor noted that if a party could be found to develop a public-private partnership, a redevelopment of the Clay School site could open the door to new options for the Nelson Jordan Center if the option is explored to relocate the facility.

Officials also noted that the city charter already contains language that allows for a recreation commission, but that panel has not been staffed since the 1990s or earlier. City leaders indicated that a reformed recreation commission could help maintain a focus and provide guidance on the center and other related issues in the city.

“None of us can deny the potential of the Nelson Jordan Center has, as well as its historical significance,” Ketchum said, who indicated the city may want to have a feasibility study performed to get an idea of what it would take to bring the center up to date. “I’m sure there’s potential for some funding through an historic angle.

“I truthfully believe that one of our biggest tasks is to improve the quality of life for the people who live in our community, and also for retention. We want people to stay in the city of Wheeling and we want people to move to the city of Wheeling. Parks and recreation are two of the most important components to securing high retention. I’d love for this community to make it a laser focus to work on building a strategic plan for the Nelson Jordan Center.”

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