Throughout the U.S., thousands of towns are working to revitalize their downtowns. Some 2,200 of these places were considered this year for a prestigious Great American Main Streets Award, based on revitalization efforts. This year Wheeling is among the top 10 contenders for the award. Executive director of Wheeling Heritage Jake Dougherty spoke about the award and the work his organization is doing to see Wheeling reinvented.
Excerpts from a conversation with Jake Dougherty:
On Wheeling as a national example of effective revitalization efforts:
We are very clearly committed to creating enabling environments for people of all shapes and sizes, from helping developers be able to more successfully develop our beautiful architecture, to providing small grants to artists, so that they can continue practicing their craft. We're working in that whole range. It's our philosophy that the person closest to the problem is probably the best person suited to solve the problem. So how can we continue to get resources as close as possible?
And so I think that's one of the reasons why we've been really successful. Just a commitment and a strong effort to continue to figure out what those enabling environments are, and to distribute leadership throughout the community.
On what an evolving community looks like in West Virginia:
We're seeing community members become more engaged. And I think that's really exciting, because you're starting to see leadership happen outside of these particular institutions that are awarded leadership roles. You've got these legacy organizations that have been around and have been doing great things. What I say is that a lot of times they've steadied the ship through the hardest decades. And right now, the work that we're doing really builds upon those efforts. And today you're seeing leadership coming in all forms. It's coming in new residents who have moved into two neighborhoods and are just excited to be here and see potential in Wheeling because they have fresh eyes, and you're also seeing it and longtime residents who are reading discovering the city. I think it's really exciting because it continues to build upon what is best about Wheeling, which is its people and its unique sense of place. It's my hope, and I think it's our goal to to continue to engage diverse audiences and our work and continue to reach new people and provide them with resources that will help make them more successful.
I think the question of "what's next" is a great one. It's very clear that as you walk down the street in Wheeling that the work isn't done. We've seen a decrease in vacancy rates from 32% to 15%, but 15% is not the goal. So, we'll continue to work on new and innovative programs that help to solve that problem. And one thing that I always look at is the census tracts that comprise or surround downtown Wheeling has a residence or a population of about 7,700 people. But there's still a really high unemployment and there's still really high poverty. So it's really important for our work, that it is engaging to everybody that lives in Wheeling because a downtown that is that is leaving people behind isn't really developing. And so we're focused on that sustainable development that allows our neighborhoods and our downtown to really thrive.
Reflections on the state’s developed historic tax credit:
[Wheeling Heritage was] a leading organization on the advocacy around increasing the state's historic tax credit, and also preserving it through tax reform at the federal level.
We're really fortunate that we have legislative leaders in the state and at the federal level who understand the impact that it has on Wheeling. And so the advocacy efforts locally were pretty easy. It's pretty clear to see how impactful it's been. There's already been, you know, $30 to $45 million of investment announced that's going to be made in historic resources and in downtown Wheeling. That's an incredible opportunity that just wasn't there under the former policies. The state tax credit makes it possible for development to occur.
On the historic tax credit’s potential to effect small projects:
There is protection set aside for small projects. The smaller projects are going to be the future of historic districts, and maintaining context and fabric in our communities. That's where small businesses come to exist. They move into the small buildings, small historic buildings, and they create new uses for them. And that's what's really exciting in Wheeling. We're seeing dozens of new businesses start up, especially in the Center Market area. The tax credit being able to be used for that is going to be critically important, not just in Wheeling, but throughout the rest of the state.
On future projects in Wheeling and West Virginia:
The Wheeling Pittsburgh Steel Building development, which has been announced softly, is 144,000 square feet of development in the center of our city. It will be converted into a mixed-use building with commercial and market rate housing. It is very, very exciting because it defines a shift in Wheeling. That building used to be made up of workers in a very strong industry here in Wheeling, and that's just not the case anymore. These buildings that were built for that cause have a new use and a new economy here in the city. And so as we reuse these historic buildings like the Wheeling Pit building, it's important to think about not only that it's hitting the tax rolls and that it's full, but that it defines a clear shift in what the future of Wheeling and what the future West Virginia looks like.