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What’s Rush On Land Buy?

Members of Wheeling City Council are in a hurry to begin work on their proposed $14.5 million public safety building, which the fire and police departments need. But is that rush to construction wise?

Council is poised to approve an option-to-buy agreement for property at 19th and Jacob streets, owned by Frank Calabrese.

If that purchase goes through, Calabrese would receive $150,000 immediately, with the possibility of another $195,000, plus $30,000 to cover expenses in moving his property out of an old warehouse at the site.

For as long as 18 months, the $195,000 would sit in an escow account while city officials pursue state and/or federal funding for environmental remediation of the site. If that funding comes through, Calabrese would receive the $195,000. If not, it would be used for cleanup work.

A number of questions about the proposal arise. Among them:

– Why was an option-to-buy agreement needed? Is some other party interested in buying the property from Calabrese — and if so, why would the city want to block them?

– In all of Wheeling, is there no other site suitable for a public safety building? That seems to be city officials’ contention.

– Why are council members so eager to lock in the purchase before a conclusive, professional evaluation of contamination in the ground and problems in the old warehouse, such as asbestos, has been completed?

– What if the cost of making the site usable is exorbitant, perhaps in excess of $1 million, and is not covered by state or federal funding? Are city taxpayers on the hook?

– Have enough professional evaluations of the 19th and Jacob streets property been conducted to ensure it is suitable for the safety building without costly site preparation?

– Is the land really worth the total of $375,000 city officials are prepared to pay for it?

– And perhaps most important: What’s the rush? Why not proceed more deliberately?

There may be an obvious answer to that one. On the second Tuesday in May, Wheeling voters will go to the polls to elect a mayor and city council members. Winners will take office July 1.

Time is short, then, for the current administration to undertake a signature project that cannot be stopped, even if it proves to be a costly mistake.

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