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The Highlands Comes of Age: Ohio County Development Has Grown Plenty Over Last 15 Years

Photo by Derek Redd - Traffic was heavy around The Highlands on Friday. Since the complex has opened, it has become a major retail hub in the Ohio Valley.

TRIADELPHIA — Nipping up to The Highlands for holiday stuff, a date night or a birthday party that literally has kids climbing walls is common for many area residents. But, as recently as 15 years ago, much of the 1,000-some flattened acres that now make up the complex were wooded hilltop.

Two men who were in the thick of the project from the beginning and another who was observing from both near and afar shared their perspectives on a site — now nearly developed out — that has come of age.

THE POLITICIAN

Randy Wharton, County Commission president and head of the Ohio County Development Authority, has been around from The Highlands’ idea stage. The authority, which continues to own and operate the complex, pursued the plan after a second effort to revitalize Wheeling’s downtown by converting a chunk of it into a mall faltered in the early 2000s.

(In the 1970s, voters rejected a downtown Fort Henry Mall not long before the construction of the Ohio Valley Mall in St. Clairsville. A Victorian-themed outlet mall made some progress in the early aughts before pledged state funding was tied up in a lawsuit over distribution fairness.)

“It was originally going to be like light industry, office type of stuff,” Wharton said of using county funding for the purchase and leveling of initial acreage near the Pennsylvania border.

But, when the state helped seal a deal with Cabela’s to bring a store and distribution center to the site, a flurry of retail followed.

“It just evolved,” Wharton said of which businesses and lots opened. “As the market dictated, we started becoming an attractive site.”

Today, The Highlands merits a Wikipedia entry as the largest retail complex in the region — with more than 100 businesses and some 1.4 million square feet of retail space. But, Wharton noted the original goal eventually came back into play. As the retail and restaurants created bustle, other types of businesses came in, too.

Tenant sectors now include light manufacturing, educational and conference space, medical offices, an inbound call center, automobile dealerships, hotels and the Highlands Sports Complex. During the height of oil and gas well installation, the complex even leased open land for equipment storage.

“It’s very diversified,” Wharton said, noting that the recently opened sports complex creates its own on-site synergy. “Don’t think for one second we didn’t fully understand that the people are going to be staying in hotels and eating in restaurants.”

Such tenants help pay the bills, Wharton added, but said they do a lot more. He sees the full economic impact of the complex — which is difficult to calculate given the number of businesses, employment that fluctuates seasonally and the various property and sales taxes that are involved — as evidence the project was a good one for public (government) support.

“When you have private developers, your motivation always has to be profit motivation,” Wharton said, explaining he has been involved in the family business of automotive sales and services for 46 years.

He said public developers are looking at a broader picture. “You’re increasing the tax benefit. You’re creating jobs. You’re giving people a place to shop and keep those dollars in the community.”

Aware that some have criticized the development as harmful to downtown, Wharton said private enterprise has its own ebb and flow.

“Governments are never going to be able to tell a businessperson where, what and when they’re going to do their business,” he said. “Our job is to facilitate.”

To that end, Wharton said the authority stepped in when Straub and Robinson automotive dealerships left downtown for the wide open space at The Highlands, taking redevelopment responsibility for both vacated sites. Both were quickly redeveloped.

As The Highlands moves forward — tweaking landscaping and brand identity, pursuing a second I-70 interchange at the west end of the complex, and moving earth in order to create more development pads — Wharton said maintaining diversification is a must. (As is, he noted, maintaining a full-fledged experience model by keeping businesses such as the cinema vibrant.)

While some of the diversity so far has been organic, with businesses coming to the authority, other entities have been actively sought out, he noted. How that has unfolded — and how the county has interacted with the state in order to bring it all together — has been instructive, he added.

“There were a lot of late-night meetings, a lot of trips to Charleston, lots of lessons learned,” he said.

THE BUSINESS OWNER

Seth Posin, third generation owner of Howard’s Diamond Center, doesn’t mince words about moving from downtown’s Market Street to the Highlands in 2010.

“It was one of the best decisions we made — the foot traffic, the parking. The space we have is just beautiful and downtown was falling down around us,” said Posin. He noted the 1923-opened store had 10 jewelry cases in its downtown shop but the new store has space for special displays such as crystal-decked handbags by Judith Leiber Couture.

Posin said their only regret is that they couldn’t have made the move sooner.

“At that time, they did not have small spaces for small stores,” he said of trying in the early days, when retail was limited to big box. “We had to wait.”

Downtown, which in turn has made strides reinventing itself with a mix of office and residential space and an increasingly vibrant dining and entertainment district, is a different place than when the store left, he acknowledged. Indeed, the Posin’s former store site is part of The Health Plan’s corporate footprint. But, Posin believes his business will likely remain at The Highlands, which he referred to as “a community unto itself.”

THE PROFESSOR

When Allen Dieterich-Ward, a history professor at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, was growing up in Barnesville, Wheeling was the nearest “big city.” Since then, he has monitored The Highlands while visiting family and has written extensively about the area’s various efforts to revitalize as part of his work.

Interestingly, he noted retail that remains downtown is poised to succeed in an emerging trend in which urban grittiness appeals to shoppers weary of online shopping. “It’s about the experience of being in a place.”

The Highlands may be vulnerable to shifting economic forces, however, he added.

For one, its abundant retail will be, “facing competition in the how-cheap-can-we-go department,” in the same way as malls that are under one roof, he said. Online shopping and warehouses designated for just-in-time delivery seem to be the emergent model.

He suspects all marketplaces will need to increasingly diversify and “shift to experiences that you can’t get with a click online.”

A second challenge that’s locally unique to The Highlands may be environmental, Dieterich-Ward added. “It’s not clear that that’s sustainable,” he said of a commerce model tied to automobiles and inexpensive gas.

If The Highlands diversifies in a way that involves moving critical public services to a complex located away from the county’s population center, that could also bring social-justice concerns into play, he added.

He noted the Ohio County Health Department’s location for COVID vaccinations that is at The Highlands. Parking and handicapped accessibility is there, but it’s not near where people live. “The place you can get them (vaccinations) for free is the place people who might need them for free can’t easily get to.”

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