The following selection from Beyond Rust: Metropolitan Pittsburgh and the Fate of Industrial America, by Allen Dieterich-Ward, is excerpted with permission of the University of Pennsylvania Press. For more information see:

View of the Wheeling Heritage Port built on the former site of the Wharf Parking Garage, 2002. The Robert C. Byrd Intermodal Transportation Center and the Wheeling Artisan Center are visible in the center to the left of the Wheeling Civic Center. [Photograph by Jim Barnett. Courtesy of Sasaki Associates.]

View of the Wheeling Heritage Port built on the former site of the Wharf Parking Garage, 2002. The Robert C. Byrd Intermodal Transportation Center and the Wheeling Artisan Center are visible in the center to the left of the Wheeling Civic Center. [Photograph by Jim Barnett. Courtesy of Sasaki Associates.]

Part one of this three-part series explored the successes and failures of civic leaders in the city of Pittsburgh who championed the conversion of abandoned rail lines into recreational trails, poured municipal resources into the remediation of polluted brownfield sites, and advocated for new office buildings, museums, theaters, and sports stadiums that embraced rather than ignored the region’s iconic rivers. Turning our attention to the metropolitan hinterland underscores the fact that, as in the rest of the nation, the residents of the region’s smaller cities were not merely passive victims of Rust Belt deindustrialization. Drawing inspiration from Pittsburgh’s two-pronged approach to riverfront revitalization and heritage development, during the 1990s local officials and preservationists in Wheeling, West Virginia and Homestead, Pennsylvania secured federal designation as National Heritage Areas and achieved some victories in remaking their declining downtowns.

In this second excerpt, author Allen Dieterich-Ward explores the fate of Wheeling, a smaller community along the Ohio River sixty miles from the city of Pittsburgh, which showed early signs of success as the patronage of Senator Robert Byrd provided millions in federal spending for its waterfront and a number of heritage-themed projects. Nevertheless, a shrinking population of less than 40,000 and the lack of a strong public-private partnership left residents struggling to mobilize the types of economic and political resources available in their larger neighbor upriver.

* * *

“Victorian Wheeling”

As with the Renaissance of the 1950s, community leaders in the region’s smaller cities sought to copy Pittsburgh’s relative success in reinventing itself as a high-tech, post-industrial hub with the cultural amenities necessary to attract new residents. Since the 1950s, local business leaders had struggled to make their downtowns attractive destinations for shoppers who increasingly chose the comfort and convenience of regional shopping centers. In Wheeling, for example, the 1978 opening of the Ohio Valley Mall in a rural area seven miles east of the city prompted a round of soul-searching among residents whose “hubris,” in the words of one commentator, had defeated the Fort Henry Mall proposal five years earlier. The long-delayed civic center finally opened in 1977, but it was somewhat isolated from the central business district and the relocation of several national retailers prompted the city council to launch a downtown revitalization program focused on facade improvement and the construction of a new parking garage. However, these modest improvements could do little to protect downtown from the precipitous economic and population declines of the 1980s. By 1991, council member Clyde Thomas declared that the city had “nothing to lose now. We are scraping bottom.”

15414Wheeling’s heritage and riverfront development strategy in the 1990s built on two decades of preservationist work by the Friends of Wheeling (Friends), a non-profit organization formed in 1970 as part of the drive to secure national register status for West Virginia Independence Hall. The driving force behind Friends was Beverly Fluty, a Colorado native who had moved to Wheeling in 1968, and Betty “Snookie” Nutting, wife of newspaper publisher Ogden Nutting and owner of a local demolition and building rehabilitation company. Over the next decade the organization helped lead the charge for securing similar status for the 1849 Wheeling Suspension Bridge and the 1850 Centre Market. In the mid-1980s, the city council officially designated the community as “Victorian Wheeling” and the state governor proclaimed a similar designation the next year. Wheeling was also among the first in the state to gain official acceptance into the National Trust’s Main Street program. By 1990, the city was an early success story for heritage projects, with an impressive renovation to the Centre Market that reopened in 1989 and housed such small businesses as the iconic Coleman’s Fish Market.

Preservationists found a key ally in Harry Hamm, a founding member of the Wheeling Area Conference on Community Development. While the Wheeling Conference faded as an organization, Hamm continued his booster role as editor of the Nutting-owned Wheeling Intelligencer newspaper and gained valuable insight into the post-industrial transformation of Pittsburgh through his position on the board of the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation — an organization instrumental in the formation of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. During the late 1980s, heritage proponents turned their attention to the riverfront downtown area with the founding of the Victorian Wheeling Society. In 1987, the same year the aging Stanley Theater reopened as the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts in Pittsburgh’s Cultural District, Hamm began building support for a comprehensive revitalization program based on “Wheeling’s rich historic past” as well as creating “a living panorama of riverfront activity and points of interest.”

This connection to the riverfront built on the successful campaign over the previous decade to light the Wheeling Suspension Bridge and build a modest amphitheater near the Wheeling entrance to the bridge, which opened in 1987 on the same spot that the Fort Henry Mall proposal had once envisioned a bandshell.

Looking to Pittsburgh as a model, Wheeling’s nascent growth partnership hoped that emphasizing quality of life issues would draw in new employers, particularly in the high tech and business services sectors, attracted to a combination of cheap urban land, low taxes, and access to both heritage-based and natural amenities. Advocates joined forces with the city council in adopting Hamm’s proposal, Wheeling 2000, a clear nod to Pittsburgh’s Strategy 21, as their roadmap, and backers hired fundraiser David E. Tork to lead their efforts. As in Pittsburgh, the key goal of Wheeling 2000 was to use heritage preservation as an economic development tool to both “create a city attractive to tourists year round” and help provide the “cultural, educational and recreational opportunities which appeal to persons in the high-tech field.” Acknowledging the long-standing difficulty in raising local public funds for development projects, Tork declared that “the most important aspect of this plan is that it will be funded entirely privately.”

While it was clear the Hamm and his supporters looked to Pittsburgh as a model, Wheeling had neither the private funding nor the public administrative capacity available to its larger neighbor. Despite grants from the Benedum Foundation, for example, advocates faced difficulty in raising even the modest local share for the National Trust’s Main Street program. As a result, by 1990 advocates had begun lobbying for designation as a National Heritage Area, a federal program begun in 1984 that provided limited funding for local development initiatives. Local boosters partnering with the National Park Service oversaw the creation of a series of interpretive and management plans that sought to “narrate” the city’s nineteenth-century history through new and renovated physical infrastructure. Following the adoption of an initial development plan, in 1994 the project’s sponsors created the Wheeling National Heritage Area Corporation (WNHAC) as the nonprofit vehicle for combining public and private funds as required under federal guidelines. Charles Flynn, a former aide to New York Mayor Ed Koch and owner of a historic Pennsylvania amusement park, was hired as WNHAC’s first executive director. “I think they were interested in me because I had this rather unique combination of political experience, business experience, tourism experience and an appreciation for historic preservation,” Flynn later explained. “So, they decided to hire me, and that’s how I got to Wheeling.”

[blocktext align=”left”]“The real centerpiece of our whole effort is water-front redevelopment.”[/blocktext]From the beginning, the implementation of Hamm’s vision benefited from the political patronage of West Virginia Senator Robert C. Byrd, who secured the original federal funding for the 1992 plan and regularly added funds for the project to appropriations bills for the Department of the Interior. “It was a phenomenal amount of federal money,” Flynn recalled. “Senator Byrd was amazing.” “That would never happen today, that kind of investment he made in Wheeling. He agreed with the vision and wanted to drive to make it happen.” When Byrd left his position as Senate president pro tem in 1988 to become chair of the Appropriations Committee, he declared a goal of earmarking $1 billion for his home state. Though the city remained a Republican stronghold in a Democratic state, the senator was friends with Harry Hamm and Randy Whorls, the influential director of the Wheeling Park Commission, who served as a core member of the Wheeling National Heritage Task Force after Hamm’s death in 1991. By the time he introduced legislation in August 1993 to create a National Heritage Area in Wheeling, Byrd had already secured $4.7 million dollars for development projects and earmarked $3 million more for future use. This “early Byrd” money, as supporters later dubbed it, made possible a raft of investments that carried downtown revitalization through the early twenty-first century. Building on the vision of Wheeling 2000, Byrd also set out to enhance the city’s high-tech infrastructure through the 1991 creation of the National Technology Transfer Center housed at Wheeling Jesuit University, which also garnered an educational outreach center affiliated with NASA.25

Riverfront amenities played an increasing role in this calculus, with Charles Flynn declaring, “The real centerpiece of our whole effort is water-front redevelopment.” The first component of the 1992 heritage plan to be implemented was the Wheeling Heritage Trail, a 13-mile rail-trail bike and pedestrian facility on the east bank of the Ohio River that attracted strong local use. Soon afterward, work began on what would become one of the most visible parts of Wheeling’s waterfront development: an open-air amphitheater, park, and marina dubbed the “Heritage Port.” During the 1990s, WNHAC worked with NPS officials to develop an overall plan for the community, a program of physical redevelopment, an interpretive master plan, and an oral history database. In 1996, the city’s first federally funded attraction, the $6 million Wheeling Artisan Center, opened a block from the waterfront, featuring exhibits, an arts and crafts retail shop, an art gallery, and a privately managed restaurant and brew-pub. The senator’s efforts culminated in 1997 in the opening of the Robert C. Byrd Intermodal Transportation Center, a grandiose name designed to obscure what was in reality a federally funded parking garage, which housed a modest visitor center and allowed demolition of the waterfront Wharf Parking Garage to make way for the Heritage Port.

Aside from the increased tourism spending from events at the Heritage Port and the Artisan Center, the public investment in heritage rehabilitation as an economic development tool paid its greatest dividends a few blocks south of downtown in the neighborhoods surrounding Centre Market. Hydie Friend, a Wheeling native with a master’s degree in urban and regional planning, was hired by the city’s development department in 1983 and oversaw the restoration of the historic market using a combination of private funds raised by the Friends of Wheeling and public investment from the city and federal government. The area had the advantage of being near both the Ohio Valley Medical Center, one of the city’s largest employers, and West Virginia Northern Community College, which had recently moved into the beautiful 1913 Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Terminal, the renovation of which also represented a significant public investment. These public investments slowly prompted private restoration of nearby homes and commercial sites that took advantage of both state and federal tax credits for historic rehabilitation. Wheeling also developed its own local expertise in historic preservation, including the architectural firm of McKinley & Associates, founded by civil engineer David McKinley in 1981, the same year he was elected as a state legislator.

[blocktext align=”right”]“We proved we had a pool of talent, the real estate costs were favorable, and we had proximity to Pittsburgh International Airport.”[/blocktext]This neighborhood-based approach to growth in Center Wheeling paid its most significant dividend in 2001, when community leaders recruited the San Francisco-based law firm of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe to establish its global operations center in the nearby Wheeling Stamping Building, a vacant warehouse complex along the riverfront. McKinley & Associates’ extensive rehabilitation of the site, which involved linking three existing buildings, required a $7 million financing package from a combination of local, state, and federal sources, including $2 million from the National Park Service through WNHAC. “We proved we had a pool of talent, the real estate costs were favorable, and we had proximity to Pittsburgh International Airport,” explained Will Turani, who moved from his position as Wheeling city manager to director of Orrick’s new facility. Over the next decade, the company expanded the center to three hundred relatively highly paid employees, which in turn prompted additional rehabilitation of other nearby buildings. Later estimates suggested that the Wheeling facility saved the company $10 million to $15 million annually, primarily as a result of lower salaries and real estate expenses than it would pay in other major metropolitan areas. “I believe that we have far surpassed our goal of simply improving client service and reducing operating costs,” declared Ralph Baxter, Orrick’s chief executive. “We’ve helped revitalize a former steel town.”

Despite the modest growth of the Center Wheeling neighborhood in the 1990s, sustaining the political consensus and economic resources necessary for transforming the main downtown area proved extremely difficult. In the early 1980s, city council had agreed to spend $1 million in capital improvements downtown in exchange for property owners voluntarily upgrading their properties, developing common hours of operation, and otherwise cooperating on promotions and advertising. This framework was subsequently the foundation for involvement in the National Trust’s Main Street program, with the city providing initial funding and property owners expected to invest their own resources and coordinate future activities. With a city charter change in 1992 that strengthened the municipal government, Wheeling seemed poised to take advantage of the new opportunities. However, within three years supporters were unable to raise even the bare bones $40,000 annual budget from downtown merchants and the Main Street program folded. “Merchants are very difficult to grab,” explained Hydie Friend, who retired from her position in the city’s development department to take over as WNHAC executive director in 2001. “Even if you’re in a strong Main Street program, to get them to have the same hours and common graphics and advertising and that kind of thing, they’re just real independent. And then putting their money in on it was a whole other obstacle.” Combined with the Steel Valley’s continuing economic problems, this lack of participation meant that there was little local money available to take up the slack when a shift in national politics made it more difficult for Byrd to obtain funding earmarks.

Wheeling’s public-private partnership also struggled to reconcile two competing visions of the goal of downtown revitalization within the framework of a National Heritage Area. The goal of heritage-based rehabilitation in the original Wheeling 2000 proposal was to take “the old, idle and abandoned factories and plants and create in and around them the conditions of a functioning park.” Aside from looking to other urban parks, especially Lowell National Historic Park, Wheeling’s 1,650-acre Oglebay Park was already a national model for a self-supporting public municipal park that also generated extensive revenue for surrounding neighborhoods. Oglebay, the summer estate of a coal, iron, and shipping magnate donated to the city in 1926, expanded following World War II to include a zoo, museum, 270-room lodge, planetarium, extensive gardens, and two championship golf courses. Under Randy Whorls, the park began the Winter Festival of Lights in 1985, an extensive display of landscape lighting that soon spread throughout the city and eventually grew into the nation’s largest holiday display. Funded in part by Byrd’s largesse, in 1993 Whorls also spearheaded the creation of Oglebay’s Carriage House Glass Museum and Artisan Center, which combined a venue for demonstrating glass blowing and other artisanal works with a retail venue for regional arts and crafts. Along with Tamarack, an enormous West Virginia-themed artisanal center along the interstate north of Beckley, the Carriage House served as the model for the larger downtown Artisan Center with 30,000 square feet of retail that was to be an anchor for the heritage redevelopment of the entire central business district.

When Charles Flynn arrived in Wheeling in 1994 as WNHAC’s new executive director, he had a different vision of urban revitalization than that promoted by Whorls and his supporters. Randy was “a big believer that retail would help,” Flynn explained. “But Oglebay, was a resort [and] that’s a very different environment than a downtown.” Afraid that the sale of crafts would not be able to cover the operating expenses of the restored wholesale grocery building that housed the Artisan Center, Flynn advocated shrinking the retail footprint and putting a brewpub on the first floor that could host events and serve the local neighborhood, including the corporate offices of Wesbanco across the street. Rather than focusing on enhancing the retail and tourist trade in the central business district, a key goal of the long-standing “Live on the Hills and Work in the City” motto that still served as a basic framework for urban revitalization in the heritage area, Flynn saw riverfront redevelopment as a key factor in encouraging people to live downtown. “Let’s put it this way, I never believed that retail was the solution,” he later recalled. “I was a big believer that if you could create a great place and you could strengthen the office market and strengthen the residential market then any retail market would cater to it. That’s why I fought so hard [and] we sort of changed the nature of the Artisan Center.”

[blocktext align=”left”]”I was a big believer that if you could create a great place and you could strengthen the office market and strengthen the residential market then any retail market would cater to it.”[/blocktext]As with the contemporaneous efforts of Tom Murphy to launch a mall at Fifth and Forbes in Pittsburgh, for many in Wheeling the focus of redevelopment efforts remained on enhancing the downtown retail trade. The 1998 purchase of prominent downtown retailer, Stone & Thomas, by Elder-Beerman, Inc., and closure of the store two years later caused a major upheaval in the city’s traditional retail sector. Soon after Flynn left his position at WNHAC to head Arizona’s Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area in 1999, a local investment company revived the idea of a mall on approximately the same site as the ill-fated Fort Henry project. In 2001, plans for the Victorian Wheeling Outlets were included in the Wheeling National Heritage Area’s revised master plan and over the next two years, WNHAC spent nearly $2 million in site studies despite concerns expressed by local business owners about losing control. “We are looking at taking the outlet malls like you see in the middle of cornfields alongside interstates,” William Wilmoth, WNHAC chairman declared, “and finding out if that concept would work in a downtown.”

At the turn of the twenty-first century, then, several trends converged that presented both opportunities and obstacles for copying Pittsburgh’s model of heritage-based rehabilitation and riverfront-oriented revitalization in Wheeling. Public investment in the restoration of Centre Market, the B&O Railroad Station, and Independence Hall as well as the earlier expansion of the Ohio Valley Medical Center gave rise to a vibrant mixed-use urban neighborhood that attracted private investment and the type of creative class entrepreneurship envisioned by Wheeling 2000. Other public-private partnerships paid off in the form of slowly expanding riverfront amenities and the modest success of the Artisan Center. However, these projects remained relatively scattered, as the central business district continued to reflect regional economic dislocation and an urban population that had declined to less than 30,000.

The efforts of the city’s public-private partnership to attract national retailers to the Victorian Outlets thus reflected a sense of both desperation and continued tension over the goals and means of stimulating urban revitalization. State officials approved a $70 million economic development grant for the outlet project, but a lawsuit over the process of awarding grants delayed release of the funds. Even as proponents of the downtown outlets attempted unsuccessfully to attract tenants without clear funding, county officials tapped the same state grant process for $35 million to finish work on the Fort Henry Industrial and Commerce Park, a publicly subsidized effort that blasted the top off of a mountain east of the city to create developable flat land along Interstate 70. In 2003, the sporting goods giant Cabela’s, Inc. announced that it would create an enormous warehousing and retail complex on the site. Over the next decade, many of Wheeling’s traditional retailers closed their downtown locations and moved to “The Highlands,” as the enormous shopping area came to be known. “It’s rather disappointing to go out this way,” concluded William Gallagher, the long-time general manager at Crone’s Clothiers Ltd., a landmark men’s clothing store that once counted The Righteous Brothers, Dean Martin and James Stewart among its clients. “I never dreamt downtown Wheeling would fall apart the way it has.”

Allen Dieterich-Ward is Associate Professor of History at Shippensburg University.

Don’t miss a thing in the world of Belt by signing up for our weekly newsletter: