January 9, 2011 – By CASEY JUNKINS Staff Writer The Intelligencer
WHEELING – In downtown Wheeling, you can still buy a new sofa, book a trip to Hawaii, get a haircut, and enjoy a variety of dining and entertainment options.
However, with longtime Main Street clothier Kaufman’s of Wheeling recently filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection, and Howard’s Diamond Center vacating its Market Street storefront for a new one at The Highlands, the 30-year trend of large and traditional retail businesses leaving the downtown seems to be continuing.
In fact, since January 1981, downtown Wheeling has lost Stone & Thomas (later Elder-Beerman), G.C. Murphy Co., Rite Aid, Horne’s of Wheeling, L.S. Good’s, Boury Inc., Reichart Furniture (later Heilig-Meyers), and Crone’s Clothiers, among others. These losses occurred after both Sears and J.C. Penney left Wheeling for the Ohio Valley Mall in the late-1970s.
A Sunday News-Register inspection of current storefronts in the downtown area from 10th to 16th streets, between Main and Market streets, shows the following businesses:
- 28 retail businesses, such as Chris Miller Furniture, the Jewelry and Watch Co., Braunlich’s Whirlpool Sales, and Gerrero Music & Pianos;
- 18 restaurants, bars or theaters, such as River City Ale Works, Subway, Quiznos and the Capitol Theatre;
- 34 other businesses, such as law offices, hotels, banks, schools, museums, travel agencies, etc.;
- 41 unoccupied storefronts or lots, such as the former Straub Honda & Hyundai lots and buildings, former G.C. Murphy building and former Dawson’s Meat Market.
The survey results did not include residences, parking lots or garages, and temporary businesses, such as tax services.
Wheeling Mayor Andy McKenzie knows the loss of retail hurts the downtown. However, he cited the presence of Orrick, Herrington and Sutcliffe’s Global Operations Center, Williams Lea in the Stone Center (the former Stone & Thomas building), TTi Technologies, Vista Research Inc., and the Jackson Kelley law firm as examples of how office jobs are replacing retail outlets.
“Downtowns across the country changed in the1970s, including Wheeling. Since then, most downtowns have be focusing on back offices, legal offices and commercial space,” he said. “Plus, the country recently has gone through one of the worst recessions since the Great Depression, causing banks to fail, home values to drop, record unemployment and bankruptcy.
“Fortunately, Wheeling has fared better than most of the country. …”
To help attract and keep companies downtown, former Mayor Nick Sparachane led the effort to establish the Downtown Business District Enhancement Tax Credit to lessen the Business and Occupation Tax burden on companies. The program offers new businesses a 100 percent credit for their first three years of operation, and 50 percent credits to all businesses that have been open for three years.
Some Wheeling business owners would like to see more help from the city, particularly through issues such as beautification and removing parking meters.
Patrick Viola, owner of Security Travel at 1207 Market St., said “people don’t want to come to downtown now – they see it as being out of the way.”
Viola said he conducts most of his business over the phone, so the majority of his customers do not need to see him in person. For those who do make their way to his office, however, Viola said many of them are discouraged by what they perceive as outdated metered parking.
“When I have a customer who is sitting here, and they have to run out to put more change in a parking meter, that is bad,” he said. “If you didn’t have those parking meters, people would stay longer in what is left of downtown Wheeling.”
Steubenville, Weirton, and St. Clairsville are some local cities that have eliminated parking meters in recent years, though Wheeling and Moundsville still have them.
Though he is discouraged by the parking meters and the appearance of downtown, Viola said he still supports the city and plans to keep his business downtown.
Currently, community leaders are working on several plans they believe will, to some extent, help revitalize the downtown. These include a project to make several improvements to the Market Plaza, which runs along the west side of Market Street between 10th and 11th streets. Another improvement is the installation of the Pocket Park, located in what once was a deep, empty lot next to a dental office on the east side of the street in the 1100 block of Main Street.
Regarding the 1100 block of Main and Market streets, the city currently owns the G.C. Murphy, River City Dance Works and Rite Aid buildings. City officials continue to decide just what they will do with those structures.
In the meantime, local artists painted murals to cover the G.C. Murphy building’s windows on both the Main and Market street sides. Plans are also in the works for the Heritage Port Gateway Park to be built on the empty lot once home to Waterbed Warehouse.
Plans also are in the works to revitalize East Wheeling, with a sports complex to be located along 15th Street between Wood and McColloch streets. A cost of $2.5 million was estimated for all aspects of the project: property acquisition, demolition, asbestos abatement, site clearance, construction and facility lighting. City leaders are currently working to acquire all of the property needed to build the complex.
Also, the Wheeling Downtown Business Association moved to hire Lou Stein, executive director of Valley Ventures, to create a new redevelopment plan for the area. Regarding types of businesses he would like to attract, Stein said he would like to see more restaurants that offer breakfast, a bookstore and more clothing stores.
Though Stein could not be reached for comment, downtown association organizer Cindy Hall expressed optimism for the future of retail in Wheeling.
“It is out with the old and in with the new,” she said when discussing the prospects of Kaufman’s leaving the downtown. “It is sad to see them go out of business, but a place like that belongs at The Highlands or in a mall.
“We need to focus on bringing in unique types of shops, things that are not going to be in a mall or at The Highlands,” Hall said, citing small boutiques and art galleries as the types of retail that she believes can succeed downtown.
“It is sad now to see so many empty stores, but there are going to be good things coming.”