By Lee Chottiner
Like so many young people growing up in Wheeling in the 1980s and 1990s, Glenn Elliott had one overriding thought: to get out.
“Honestly, all I and just about everybody else in my class wanted to do was to get out,” the Linsly School graduate said. “Wheeling in 1990 was still very much in the midst of a decline. The attitude was very negative. All the job opportunities seemed to be elsewhere and I followed those opportunities.”
He followed them successfully. He went to the University of Pennsylvania and landed an internship with U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd. After his graduation he moved to Washington, D.C., to take a full-time job on the late senator’s staff. He eventually went to law school at Georgetown University and found a position with a D.C. law firm.
In a way, Elliott’s success made it even harder to consider a return to his hometown.
“I always thought about Wheeling during that time, but I never really thought it was an option to come back,” he said. “I already had a lot of debt from undergraduate school. I doubled that debt with law school and the idea of finding a job where I could support that debt payment in Wheeling was just not an option.”
Finally, though, he arrived at a moment in his life when coming home, at least for a year, made sense. He wasn’t happy at his firm and his parents were getting older. So he made a decision: take a year off, move back home and plan his next move.
So began Elliott’s return to Wheeling. Since his homecoming, he has become a historic downtown property owner, a grassroots activist and an announced candidate for mayor in the next election—a campaign in which he's said he will make historic preservation a cornerstone issue.
“Glenn is the type of person, the type of leader, that does not consider himself as being above others, even if he is in a leadership role,” said Wendy Scatterday, who is running for city council in the 4th Ward. “He treats everyone as an equal, and oftentimes considers himself even in a lesser role, gladly seeking another's input, opinion and expertise, in particular, but not limited to, areas outside of his knowledge base."
Added Chad Thalman, a council candidate in the 1st Ward, "I respect Glenn and think he would be a good mayor. He has invested not just his time but also his money on a building in downtown, which I believe in many ways demonstrates his commitment to Wheeling and downtown in particular."
Though Wheeling is still struggling—a recent U.S. Census Bureau estimate showed the city has lost 700 residents since 2010—Elliott is energized by the return of other like-minded Wheeling natives who see potential in their hometown and want to be part of its renaissance.
“The sense of community was really strong [in Wheeling],” Elliott told Dateline: Wheeling during a recent interview at the Professional Building, the 19th century skyscraper he plans to restore while making his home on the second floor in the meantime. “The sense of people really taking an active interest in Wheeling was something I’d never really seen in D.C.”
“It’s not very hard to find a way here to make a contribution that matters,” he added. You’re a face in the crowd there [Washington]. I felt like here in Wheeling, as long as you put some effort in, you really could make a difference on a decent scale just by showing you care.”
When Elliott first returned to Wheeling, he lived in (and helped to restore) a house his father owned. He also traveled frequently—Europe, New York—and even started to write a book about his observations of politics and the media in Washington.
All that would soon change. He began working with Wheeling attorney Teresa Toriseva on an as-needed basis. He got interested in efforts to establish a dog park in Wheeling. (He’s a dog lover himself; a King Charles Spaniel named Porter lives with him at the Professional Building.) He also got active with Ohio Valley Young Preservationists.
Socially, “it took me about six months to really get reconnected with people and catch up with the friends who were still here,” Elliott said. Like him, some of his friends had moved home, but only a few.
He really began to put down roots in 2013—the same year he purchased the Professional Building.
As Elliott recalls it, he was out with a group of friends decorating empty downtown buildings on Valentines Day for the Lovescaping project, an annual effort organized by the Wheeling Young Preservationists, in which members showcased buildings in need of improvements by decorating them.
Elliott and other young preservationists were working on Main Street storefronts, but later, on their way home, they cut across Market Street where the Professional Building stands.
“It was almost like a scene out of a movie,” he said. “I’m sure I’ve stood in front of this building countless times, but I don’t think I had ever seen this building, if that makes any sense. I had never admired it from an architectural standpoint.”
He was hooked. He began researching the building’s history. He reviewed its architectural assessment, which was commissioned by the Wheeling National Heritage Area for the previous owner. He understood why it was available for the price and what improvements it needed to comply with the city's building code.
Finally, after discussions with friends and family, including his father and people in the construction business, he bought the building.
“Most people, especially people over 60 or 70, I talked to said, 'don’t do it; it’s going to be a money pit. Downtown is never coming back,' ” he recalled. “This was the actual attitude of a lot of folks, and you know, honestly, I can’t blame people for being negative because Wheeling in 2013 still wasn’t showing a lot of signs of life.”
But Elliott saw the building, with its 600 tons of Maine granite and the largest known turret in the world as an opportunity. And the media apparently saw his purchase as a way to turn downtown revitalization into a cause celebre.
“The newspaper covered my purchase as though it were a pretty big deal,” he said, “[but] Kalkreuth had bought the Riley Law Building in 2011, and it’s a much bigger building, a much bigger project. It didn’t get nearly as much attention. I found that odd, but I think they saw me as a guy who came home and was trying to save a building. I think that has helped change the conversation here a little bit.”
If more entrepreneurs take a chance on downtown, Elliott said, they’ll discover, as he did, that the real estate there is more than so many empty buildings.
“A lot of people actually don’t know the histories of a lot of these buildings downtown,” he said. “I think every building has a story...and tells Wheeling’s story. It’s a reason to save the buildings and it’s a reason to care about them.”
Preservation and other issues
Not surprisingly, Elliott has made historic preservation a key issue in his campaign for mayor.
“I think saving old buildings makes good economic sense,” he said. “It also makes sense for our pride, for preserving our culture.”
For some old buildings, time is running out; namely, the structures along the 1400 block of Market Street.
“They are taking on water, in danger of falling down, and they’re historically significant buildings, key pieces of the block."
He believes the city should make historic property a higher priority than the WesBanco Arena, where it is already investing money for improvements. "Seven million dollars would go a long way to [giving] those buildings a new face, a new roof and actually market them to someone. I don’t think the city needs to be a real estate developer, but I think the city needs to help bridge that gap.”
The city may already be looking at that block. The Intelligencer reported that city council voted unanimously this week to authorize $155,000 in tax increment financing revenue to acquire downtown property for redevelopment. City officials haven't identified the property, but the paper listed the 1400 block among the real estate that could be purchased.
Jeremy Morris, director of the Wheeling National Heritage Area, echoed Elliott's warning about the condition of the 1400 block buildings.
“Certainly, there needs to be a solution for that block,” said Morris, who also is a city council candidate in the 2nd Ward. “It’s an interesting block of buildings, historically. Downtown has had so much demolition; the last thing you need to do is demolish another four buildings… We really should look for restoration to be the answer, and be patient … do the things that make it opportune for businesses to go in there.”
Historic preservation also makes environmental sense, Elliott said. “You tear down an old building, the amount of environmental waste involved in that process is considerable. Then you replace it with a building with all sorts of materials that affect the environment negatively. It’s a lot of environmental impact to tear down an old building and replace it with something new.”
There are other issues he will trumpet during next year’s campaign:
• Waterway exploitation: “We don’t use our waterways at all. Wheeling Creek goes through five of the six wards of the city and it’s mostly ignored. That’s something I’d love to see the city rethink and that goes very much beyond downtown.”
• Recycling: “Putting aside the fact that recycling is morally right, it’s also economically smart because it makes us competitive. You take a 25-year-old kid who’s lived in some hip city, bring him back to Wheeling, the first question he’ll ask you is, ‘do you guys recycle here?’ I can’t tell you how many people have asked me that question, and it [the state of recycling here] actively bothers people".
“We have an aging population here; we keep losing our high school grads,” he added. “If you want them to stay here, you have to make it a place where they want to live. And people in that age group expect recycling; it’s just engrained in them. We have to get off the mindset of, well, it didn’t work before so we can’t try it now.”
• Attracting new residents: “Jeremy Morris and I talk about the idea of making Wheeling the hippest and coolest city in West Virginia. I don’t know if it is there yet…but I really think Wheeling has a chance to make a run for that… to set itself apart from the rest of the state and say here is a shining example of what you can do, what a city can be. We have to do a better job of telling the story of what we already have here.”
The Byrd influence
Elliott spent five years working for Sen. Byrd, and it shows.
“I have complete reverence for that man,” Elliott said. “He’s influenced me as much as any other human being.”
After interning for Byrd in 1993, he went to work for him in 1994, first as a legislative correspondent, writing replies to constituents' letters. He later became a legislative assistant, advising the senator on economic and tax issues and even writing speeches for him.
“I got to spend a lot of time with him, a lot of late nights there when they did the budget resolutions,” Elliott said. “Back then they’d have these marathon voting sessions. There were a lot of nights when it was just the senator and I sitting in his office over there in the Capitol waiting for votes. We’d walk up to the chamber; he'd vote and he'd come back down to his office, have a cigar or something. He was a neat guy.
“It was times like that I cherished,” he continued, “because you got to see the unvarnished Sen. Byrd. He always kept a bit of a social wall between the staff and himself. He wasn’t a fraternizing guy; he was never going to have a beer with you. But I learned a lot just by observing him, seeing how he thought. He was a Democrat, but he never took direction from a Democratic president or a Democratic Party leader. He was very principled man. On his core issues he would never compromise.”
Elliott plans to take the same tack if he is elected mayor, noting that the job is suppose to be free of partisan politics.
“I’m running for a nonpartisan job," he said. "It was designed that way for a reason: On most of the issues that I’ll be talking about, I don’t really see a party distinction. I don’t know if there’s a conservative or liberal way to save the city; I think it’s a combination of both. Is there a Democratic or Republican way to fix a pothole, or do you just fix a pothole?”