WHEELING - It's still anybody's best guess what downtown Wheeling will look like two, three, or even five years from now.
But the demolition of the Main Street side of the former G.C. Murphy building last Sunday served as a clear reminder: It won't much resemble the downtown your parents or grandparents remember. Where busy housewives 50 years ago found fully-cooked hams for dinner at $1.19 per pound and young people gathered at the department store's soda fountain to socialize, now sit bulldozers and piles of rubble.
To some, the loss of that building may represent the end of an era for Wheeling, but Mayor Andy McKenzie, City Manager Robert Herron and members of City Council who voted to proceed with the purchase and demolition of several buildings in the 1100 block of Main and Market streets believe that era must come to a close for a new one to begin.
Photo by Ian Hicks
Wheeling resident Charles Dryer peers through the Market Street windows of the former G.C. Murphy Department store in downtown Wheeling.
The Market Street side of the G.C. Murphy building and the three-story former Feet First building, also on Market Street, are all that remain to be razed on the block. The former Rite-Aid, River City Dance Works and Velez buildings are already gone.
Once the rubble from all those structures is cleared from the site, Herron said work will begin to make the site presentable before winter weather sets in. The next step will be for the contractor - Dore and Associates of Bay City, Mich. - to fill the 4,400-square foot area with topsoil and spread grass seed.
Once graded, the site will slope gently from the Market Street side to Main Street, Herron said, and the south edge of the property will be bordered by a black, wrought-iron fence.
Plans call for the fence to stand about 5 feet above the existing brick retaining wall separating the property from an adjacent parking lot. There was doubt early on about whether that wall would hold up during demolition, possibly forcing a change in the fence design, but Herron said the barrier, which is reinforced by steel girders, has remained intact.
All of this work is included in the city's $693,600 contract with Dore and Associates.
A total of about $1.9 million has been spent to date on the 1100 block project, including property acquisition, asbestos abatement, demolition and compensating Dr. Manny Velez for relocating his dental practice to Elm Grove. Herron said the city has an additional $400,000 set aside to make the site more functional as officials seek someone to redevelop the property.
Options include using the site temporarily for parking, he said, or creating green space. He anticipates council will consider those options and formulate a plan during the winter months.
"That's going to include input from the business owners, as well," Herron said.
He stressed, however, those measures are designed to make the area presentable.
"Whatever we're doing, it's going to be geared toward marketing the site for development," Herron said.
North Wheeling resident Charles Dryer does not want to see the 1100 block become a parking lot - even temporarily. He believes downtown Wheeling already has enough of those.
"We're trying to beautify downtown," he said, noting he would prefer to see the city convert the space to a temporary park, with benches, flowers, garbage cans - maybe even a small statue or fountain - as they seek a buyer for the property.
As he gazed through the Market Street windows of the former G.C. Murphy building, he recalled his childhood visiting the store, buying everything from blue jeans to harmonicas and toys.
"Now, you can't buy nothing downtown but a pizza and a beer," he said.
Herron said he couldn't give a target date for the demolition work to be completed, but he said there likely would be one more Sunday morning where downtown traffic is restricted, as has happened twice already. Although the original demolition contract set a deadline of Oct. 2, Herron said he has no issues with the contractor's performance thus far.
"They've been there every day," said Herron. "They're working."