WHEELING - There's no doubt hard financial times have taken their toll on Wheeling - steady population loss and massive demolition projects all speak to that. But Mayor Andy McKenzie believes the diversity of Wheeling's economy has allowed it to avoid the catastrophic changes seen by other communities as once vibrant industries have faded into memory.
Home to two hospitals, several banks and a global operations center for the law firm Orrick, Herrington and Sutcliffe, Wheeling has many baskets in which to put its economic eggs, leaving it in much better shape than other communities that historically have been tied to a single industry, such as steel.
"There's a lot of white-collar jobs here and we've been able to keep our economy very diverse," McKenzie said. "The economy here is much better than most of this country."
The Wheeling Suspension Bridge has been a part of the city’s history since 1849.
Photo by Ian Hicks
McKenzie also pointed to Wheeling's entertainment offerings, from the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra to Broadway musicals and riverfront festivals celebrating everything from blues music to vintage raceboats and Italian culture. The past several months have seen performances by world-renowned personalities Elton John at WesBanco Arena and Jerry Seinfeld at the historic Capitol Theatre.
And in the Wheeling Nailers, the Friendly City boasts something most cities of its size cannot - a professional hockey team. Despite being in the third-smallest of the East Coast Hockey League's 23 cities, some of which have populations 10 times Wheeling's or more, the Nailers manage to put a competitive team on the ice year after year, reaching the playoffs in three out of the last four seasons.
Entertainment is "something that Wheeling has done for a long time very, very well," McKenzie said.
Wheeling has been through several phases in its long history since Ebenezer Zane built Fort Henry as a frontier settlement in 1774. The coming of the railroads in the 1850s and an uptick in European immigration led to the rise of industry in Wheeling, which was West Virginia's capital from its 1863 inception until 1865. With the decline of the Ohio Valley's industrial base in recent decades, the city's economy today largely centers around education and health care.
The city has seen a growth in Business and Occupation Tax revenue the past couple of years, particularly in the Elm Grove area, which McKenzie sees as a positive sign of the city's overall health. But he acknowledged that may not be so obvious to people driving through some of the city's main arteries.
"The city of Wheeling is doing very well - it's the appearance of downtown that we're focusing on for many reasons," he said.
To that end, the city has purchased and demolished several decaying buildings in the 1100 block of Main and Market streets to create a blank slate for future development. And several blocks away in East Wheeling, city officials await the opening of the $3 million J.B. Chambers Recreation Park, a multi-sport facility featuring an artificial turf field that is expected to be complete later this year.