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Downtowns Are Recovering After Decline

February 23, 2011

WHEELING - Job-sustaining businesses mixed with revenue-generating attractions is typically the formula to a thriving downtown.

As industry declined in the Ohio Valley, along with both the residential and business population, it left empty storefronts and little need for entertainment outlets.

Some cities, such as Wheeling, are taking measures to beautify their downtowns with green space and entertainment while others leave their hopes for more commerce to one man: Lou Stein.

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The city of Wheeling plans to purchase additional buildings and tear down the entire 1100 block of Main and Market streets, from the Horne’s Building south, to help revitalize downtown.

As executive director of Valley Ventures of Weirton, Stein seems to have his finger in almost every local downtown pot.

Valley Ventures is a private, nonprofit business that helps existing businesses expand through marketing, management assistance, or facility or equipment acquisition.

For municipalities, Stein said that he draws a "master plan" for a particular downtown area to establish a "lifestyle center" where residents can live, shop and eat.

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What is the future for downtown areas such as those in Wheeling, Steubenville and Weirton?

Uncertain, to say the least, as empty buildings dominate the landscape. Local leaders are hoping a turnaround in the economy can help lead downtowns to a new future.

Stein noted that all development is privately funded. In creating master plans, only Follansbee invested public funds toward Valley Ventures' services.

Near his headquarters, Stein pulled a few new businesses into Weirton's downtown. For example, he helped seal a deal last September to purchase the former Dunbar School to open Krazy 'Bout Sportz and also the groundbreaking for the Kwik King convenience store in 2009.

He also helped launch a Valley Commerce Center in late 2009 in the former Magnone building at 3300 Main St.

In that 20,000-square-foot structure, he leased the bottom floor to five tenants while the top is a "business office incubator" that could house 15 to 18 new businesses and bring in 50 new jobs.

Steubenville was another commerce project for Stein. In September 2009, the Steubenville Revitalization Group started work with Valley Ventures to form a three-year plan for downtown development.

Since that time, Steubenville saw the first store openings in about two years.

While Stein noted 48 empty storefronts when he started, 25 have been converted into a new business or have started development. Of those 25, Stein said 18 had been empty anywhere from three to 15 years.

Stein also has been a force in Follansbee. Valley Ventures facilitated the opening of such locations as a teen dance club, clothing stores and an ice cream parlor. He said that Follansbee City Council acquired his services in April to draw a master plan for a 12-block stretch of W.Va. 2.

Spotting 18 vacancies, he has filled or has committed tenants to fill eight of those. Seven of those buildings have been empty for more than three years.

Going south, he began working with the Wheeling Downtown Business Association to develop a downtown plan using only private funding. The WDBA started discussions with Valley Ventures in August and signed the contract three months later.

With some plans - such as the "Victorian Outlet Mall" from almost a decade ago and the "Wheeling 2020 Plan" formed in 2008 - falling through the cracks, Stein said that he realizes many may be skeptical of his approach.

Stein's development plan for Wheeling still sits on the drawing board, but the plan will include new living quarters, restaurants, specialty shops and entertainment options. His plan should be complete in 30 to 45 days, he said.

Since the contract was signed, Stein said he has been working with building and business owners, city officials and Wheeling National Heritage Area Corp. officials "to ensure we do not duplicate efforts."

While work continues in the aforementioned areas, Stein began working with the Wetzel County Chamber of Commerce for various areas around New Martinsville in January. He said his plan there will highlight development in the historic downtown section, redevelopment in the industrial park and a travel and tourism center at the riverfront. This contract will also last for three years.

While Stein and Valley Ventures continue to push a possible business boom in the Ohio Valley, some public agencies are moving forward with development of their own.

Wheeling officials are working toward a series of beautification projects, such as the completed Pocket Park, soon-to-be-developed Heritage Port Gateway Plaza at the former Waterbed Warehouse location and a revitalization of the Market Street Plaza.

In Mayor Andy McKenzie's State of the City address, he said that about $1 million could be directed to the plaza. McKenzie also said buildings in the 1100 block of Main and Market streets would be torn down.

The resulting vacant lots would allow interested businesses to start fresh on empty ground without needing to invest in bringing the structures up to code.

St. Clairsville had seen a halt in downtown revitalization because of the city's poor financial situation and in light of the Clarendon Hotel project termination, said Public Works Director Dennis Bigler.

On the private side, Stein also has a plan to expand the commercial area by about 100 acres near the Lowe's and Sam's Club shopping center in the Ohio Valley Plaza, an existing space he helped build in the 1990s.

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