Wheeling residents expressed a clear message to their city leaders Wednesday: Accepting that the Wheeling of the 21st century is unlikely to look like that of generations past doesn't necessarily mean declaring defeat.
The idea of "right-sizing" Wheeling - a city that was home to almost 62,000 people 80 years ago but has seen its population fall by almost 55 percent to 28,213 today - came up multiple times in residents' comments during Wednesday's meeting, the second of two public gatherings this week to kick off the process of updating the city's comprehensive plan for the first time since 1997.
Jim Ellison said the city must acknowledge that times have changed and make use of its best qualities in order to become a vibrant, if admittedly smaller, community.
"Don't simply go back and try to reclaim something we've lost," Ellison said.
Grace Norton agrees the lack of a consistent vision for what Wheeling should become is one of the city's biggest challenges.
"We've always been a blue-collar town," Norton said. "We need to become a white-collar town."
Other suggestions for items the plan should address included a need for more middle-class housing, making the city's streets and sidewalks more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly, improving residents' access to healthy foods and making the city into a national hub for youth sports.
Making a better first impression by sprucing up the area around interstate exits and other entry points to the city also was identified as an area of need.
When it comes to appearance, planting a few trees or shrubs along a street can mean the difference between an inviting neighborhood and a "concrete jungle," said Elizabeth Paulhus, who serves on the city's comprehensive plan steering committee.
"When we tear things down, we pave over most of them," she said.
Betty Woods "Snookie" Nutting - whose preservation work throughout the years has included a number of buildings on 12th Street and in Victorian North Wheeling - believes saving the city's historic structures and attracting some sort of large industrial operation to town are keys to Wheeling's future.
"All of these buildings can be rehabilitated. They really can ... ," Nutting said. "I do think that there is hope for this city."
This week's meetings represented the first phase in Cincinnati-based Compass Point Planning's work to develop Wheeling's new comprehensive plan.
The bulk of the work is expected to take place in early December, beginning with another public forum tentatively set for Dec. 2. Stakeholder meetings and field work will continue later that week, with another public meeting Dec. 10 - also tentative - during which Compass Point will present a framework for the plan based on the input they've received.
The consultants plan to present a draft in February or March, with additional opportunities for public comment. The goal is to have City Council adopt the plan by May, though it could be later if last-minute changes need to be made. By law, Wheeling has until the end of 2014 to adopt its new plan.