By ART LIMANN
WHEELING - Since 1994, the West Virginia state high school football championships have been decided at Wheeling Island Stadium.
Weirton Madonna's Blue Dons have made multiple appearances in the West Virginia Super Six championships since Wheeling Island Stadium became the venue for the contests in 1994.
And over the past 16 years, what has come to be known as the "Super Six weekend" has become a big part of the the Wheeling community.
Bernie Dolan, principal at Wheeling Park High School and current Super Six director, said, "Football is king in the valley. Wheeling and the Ohio Valley is a great place to have this event. It gives us the ability to show off the area to a new group of people each year."
According to Dolan, "The people of the valley are warm and inviting to the visitors. People I talk to, from out of the area, say the people they meet here are very friendly and they work hard to make sure it is a good experience for everyone. They also support the event with their attendance and financially. ... When we say Wheeling hosts Super Six, it's really the whole Ohio Valley and these efforts are noticed."
What impact does the Super Six have on the local community?
A big one, as thousands of people come to Wheeling each year for the annual West Virginia high school football championships. Wheeling has hosted for 16 years.
Dolan said the Super Six committee has faced many obstacles over the years.
"We've had ... snow on the field, the (2004) flood two months after the turf was put in, bad weather, and every time we have overcome. Everybody helps. It is a community thing.
"The city, county, and school district all work together. That's hard to find anywhere else. It's a real good working relationship. Then you add in the business community and it all works," he added.
As an example, Dolan cited the flood of 2004. Two months after the old grass field was removed, and a new artificial surface was put down, the Island was covered in water and mud.
"Everyone pitched in," Dolan said. "Panhandle Cleaning, volunteers and staff got the field ready for the games. We had put the new turf in to help us in the bidding process. It was actually a good thing we had the new surface at that time. I'm not sure a grass field could have been made ready. The turf has held up pretty well. I think we can get a few more years out of it."
Dolan explained originally the committee re-bid for the Super Six every two years. In 2008, a four-year deal was obtained.
"We're always adding something new," he said. "The pressure to upgrade keeps us sharp. ... Some of the leadership has changed, but the mission has never wavered. Sam (Mumley's) thing was the kids, the kids, the kids. Take care of the kids for they are the foundation of our future."
Gary Ray, West Virginia Secondary Schools Activities Commission executive director, agreed with Dolan. "The people of Wheeling always make everyone feel welcome when we come. The community does whatever they can to make sure it happens. ... They always keep in mind what their goal is. The great part about it is, it is not just words. They all put meaning to it. It's all about the kids, and the people feel welcome. It's more than just a football game."
In addition to the artificial turf, other improvements have been made to the stadium in excess of $570,000. A new video board was installed in 2009.
The local committee has also initiated the Academic Achievers Awards Banquet.
"The economic affect on the area is hard to measure," Dolan said, "but it is very positive. It's always very difficult to find a room or a place to eat."
Greg Stewart, Ohio County administrator, said he has been part of the Super Six committee for the past several years and the event has a definite impact.
"The hotels, motels, restaurants, and gas stations all benefit," he said. "The players and their families also go up to The Highlands and we see a direct benefit there as well. It's exposed us to other folks in the state who normally don't have a reason to come here - and people come back."
Stewart noted the county is in the planning stages of adding more hotel rooms to help accommodate the yearly influx of visitors.
"It looks like in the next year or two years we could add about 250 new rooms which will bring in new revenue and additional hotel taxes. These hotel taxes are part of the revenue used to support Super Six. This could mean it will eventually pay for itself. It also means people will be able to stay in Ohio County which has always been something people have wanted."
"As far as the future, this is the last year of the current contract, and we'll have some new wrinkles to present when we re-bid," Dolan concluded. "Every year we put in a new wrinkle to upgrade the experience. Other cities in the state copy our ideas for other sports. We think we are the benchmark. We also do the state golf tournament and last year no one bid against us because Oglebay does such a good job. We'll be ready to bid again."