Mayor: ‘The Friendly City’ Is Living Up to Its Name
By IAN HICKS
WHEELING — There is no shortage of qualities which make Wheeling stand out, from its rich history to its architecture and Oglebay Park, long held up as a crown jewel among municipal parks.
But, as one might expect from its nickname — “The Friendly City” — it’s not just the buildings but the individuals who populate them who make Wheeling what it is. It’s a phenomenon Mayor Glenn Elliott likens to “six degrees of separation,” or the theory that just about any two people in the world can be connected in six or fewer steps.
“I think we have two degrees of separation here. Almost everybody you meet either knows you or knows someone who knows you,” Elliott said. “There’s a strong sense of community and you feel welcome here.”
Elliott, who took office in July, has a different perspective on that than most. As a Wheeling native who moved to Washington, D.C. to pursue his law career before returning home, he’s experienced the sharp contrasts between a place where just about everyone has moved from somewhere else and one where people feel truly invested.
“I spent 15 years living in D.C., and I never felt like part of a community there,” Elliott said. “People have roots here, and that certainly appealed to me when I came back here — reconnecting with those roots.”
For Elliott, Wheeling represents the best of both worlds — a place where one can take part in a neighborhood meeting but also catch a professional sporting event or listen to the classical strains of Vivaldi.
“There aren’t many cities of 27,500 that have a symphony and a minor-league hockey team. … You can have a lot of the big-city amenities with a small-town feel,” he said.
One of the things Elliott said he didn’t fully appreciate about his hometown until he moved back was the wealth of historic structures which line its streets. It’s something he hears time and time again when he’s communicating with a prospective developer about opportunities available in the city.
“Almost without exception, they always marvel at our architecture. I think we sometimes take it for granted,” Elliott said.
That’s one reason Elliott believes it’s crucial for the West Virginia Legislature to expand the current 10-percent tax credit for developing historic buildings to 25-percent, comparable to what’s offered in Ohio and Pennsylvania. That disparity, he said, can make or break a developer’s decision on whether or not renovating a historic building can be profitable.
Elliott also believes the city needs at least a modest design review process for downtown — similar to what’s already been established for the Centre Market and Chapline Street Row historic districts — to ensure that what development ultimately takes place there “looks like it was intended to be there.”
But Elliott understands there are some pitfalls that come with focusing too squarely on the city’s history.
“It seemed like until a few years ago, Wheeling was always reminiscing about the past rather than looking forward to the future, but I think the conversation has changed. We’re expecting growth — not just economic growth, but population growth,” Elliott said. “The people in Wheeling who built all these great buildings weren’t being nostalgic — they were looking toward the future, and we have to do the same thing.”
To that end, the city has been working with West Virginia Division of Highways officials on a major streetscape project downtown, including paving of Main and Market streets in addition to sidewalk upgrades that will make the business district more pedestrian-friendly. However, an issue discovered during excavation of The Health Plan construction site downtown — underground vaults — could complicate the process as there likely are more such structures downtown.
Still, Elliott said he and other city leaders are communicating with new Gov. Jim Justice and DOH officials to impress upon them the importance of the project.
“We really think it’s a wonderful opportunity to put a fresh face on downtown and make it more inviting,” he said.
Elliott also cited the recent creation of a director of parks and strategic planning position — and the hire of former Marshall County Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Jesse Mestrovic to fill that role — as a way Wheeling officials are focusing on the quality of life for residents.
“He’s been tasked with looking at the city from a parks and recreation standpoint and coming up with ways we can make the city look and feel better for its residents,” Elliott said of Mestrovic.
According to Elliott, The Health Plan’s new headquarters and an Akron, Ohio developer’s interest in two city-owned buildings just across the street from the construction site are a sign that downtown Wheeling’s fortunes are changing. He also said the opening of the Boury Lofts at 16th and Main streets provides another reason for optimism.
“That’s really going to change the conversation about what can be” for downtown, Elliott said.
The mayor also said he’s personally shown prospective developers through the three city-owned buildings in the 1400 block of Market Street.
“In the last few years, almost every building that was for sale or vacant (downtown) three to five years ago is either under new ownership or having the tires kicked right now,” Elliott said.