By Lee Chottiner
When Rachel Weinberger came to Wheeling two years ago, all she brought with her, in addition to her clothes, were two chairs, a mattress and a box spring.
She built the rest.
She made her own nightstands and an upholstered headboard for her bed. She made her own art for the walls.
She sewed her own duvet cover, shams and blinds
And she repainted those chairs she brought with her.
She wasn’t just a homebody. She got a bicycle and tooled around the area; she went rock climbing; she got involved in her synagogue, Temple Shalom.
And she made friends at work, and through Meetup.com, a website connecting local individuals sharing mutual interests
This is one active woman.
Sadly, though, she’s also a woman who is leaving Wheeling, likely never to return to live.
Weinberger’s two-year clerkship in a local courthouse has come to an end. She has been offered a career position with another government agency in Manhattan. She starts in October.
Though she’s the kind of person Wheeling hopes to attract—young, educated, active, eager to be involved in her community—Weinberger, 28, knew from the start that her time in the Friendly City was limited. That’s just the nature of term clerkships.
But it’s precisely her temporary status here that makes her the perfect person to speak honestly about Wheeling—the good, the bad, the ugly—and to speculate on what the city needs to attract others like her. She agreed to share her thoughts with Dateline: Wheeling.
Agree or disagree, these are her true impressions of the city where she spent two years living, working and playing, and they shouldn’t be ignored.
Call this, her exit interview.
Even before she actually moved here in 2013, Weinberger became painfully aware that
decent housing—the kind that would appeal to young professionals—was in short supply.
“I knew from my initial experience that housing was always a problem,” she said, “so I rented an apartment six weeks early so I knew I had a place to live.”
But it wasn’t long before she had to move again. A pipe burst in the middle of winter leaving her homeless. She stayed in a hotel for three weeks as she resumed her hunt for another place to live.
The experience taught her a couple things about Wheeling, not just about its housing market, but the community in general.
Meeting people became easier for her over time, and she said she leaves Wheeling having made many good friends, but her initial experience remains: Wheeling is tough place for a newcomer to break through socially.
Jake Dougherty, director of Downtown Wheeling, and himself a young Wheeling professional, agreed that housing is a problem here.
“She [Weinberger] is absolutely right about the housing,” said Dougherty. “It’s a huge issue in Wheeling, a huge issue in the Valley, and a huge issue in Appalachia.”
“The developer [of the Stone Center Lofts] is working on market-ready housing downtown and there are a number of smaller developers [downtown] and in East Wheeling that are looking to put housing that is affordable to young professionals in those neighborhoods. To my knowledge, they’re being successful right now because there’s such a need for it.”
As for Wheeling being closed off to newcomers, “I’ve heard that as well,” Dougherty said. “I’ve heard it can be challenging as an outsider to meet people because this really a community where people have been here for a long time. They have family; they have people they spend time with. I can see how that can be an issue.”
OV Connect, a young professionals organization in the Ohio Valley with which Dougherty is affiliated, is developing a welcoming committee for newcomers, but he preferred not say more about the project for now.
“We want to solve this problem,” he said.
Glenn Elliott, a candidate for mayor, agreed that attracting newcomers to the city is “a harder pitch to make” that enticing Wheeling natives to come home, but it’s not impossible.
“Jeremy Morris [of the Wheeling National Heritage Area] and I talk about the idea of making Wheeling the hippest and coolest city in West Virginia,” Elliott said in interview with Dateline: Wheeling earlier this year. I don’t know if it is there yet—you can say Morgantown, Charlestown—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.”
Being from Metro New York, Weinberger is use to a sophisticated shopping environment with which small cities cannot compete. Nevertheless, she said Wheeling’s shopping options are depressing, even for a town its size.
“In terms of retail, this place is surely lacking,” she said. “Cruising through downtown, you can tell this place was once a Mecca of department stores and specialty shops, [and] the ghost still lingers.”
Nowadays, she said, the locals’ “best bets” for necessities and luxuries are the franchise stories. The problem with them, she said, is that they are generally class D outlets where the merchandise selections are poorer than stores in larger markets.
“Too little quality retail,” she said.
Dougherty, who grew up in Wheeling at a time when the retail sector was dying, said quality stores can return to the city. He noted the mini-renaissance already underway at Centre Market.
But even a revitalized downtown Wheeling will not resemble the bustling business district it once was.
“We have this idea that Wheeling used to be a retail Mecca for the state’s department stores,” Dougherty said. I don’t think that’s the way retail is done today. Most department stores have become big box stores.”
He envisions downtown as a fertile ground for boutique retail. Already Dougherty’s organization, Downtown Wheeling, in conjunction with the Center for Entrepreneurship at West Liberty University, the Chamber of Commerce and the Regional Economic Partnership, is offering workshops to train potential store owners to thrive in today’s market.
But there are other problems to resolve, he said, including the lack of “move-in ready” storefronts.
“We don’t have the space; we don’t have the move-in ready space to help businesses flourish. We have buildings that were built to be retail spaces… [but] they need to be rehabbed and the market will be there. We need to develop spaces to be productive again.”
It’s easier in Centre Market, he said, where storefronts are smaller and more suitable for boutique retail. He’s noticed a “clustering” effect there as merchants decide they want to be in that part of town.
“Downtown is a little bit different,” he said. “The floor plans are bigger and more challenging for retail.”
But Dougherty sees the seeds of downtown redevelopment taking root. He cited examples such as the Flatiron Building and the D.C. Ventures project on Market Street —both pegged for mixed use, residential/retail development.
“I think you’re going to see that happen, Dougherty said, “but there’s a lot to do.”
Service sector stirring
Change is creeping into the city, Weinberger acknowledged. She’s noticed a change in how the service sector is becoming more eclectic.
“There’s a disproportionately large number of young people trying to start businesses here — Vagabond Kitchen, Avenue Eats, Happy Goat Yoga, just to name a few. They add a nice, diverse alternative to your standard chains at the Highlands and the mall in St. Clairsville.”
By and large, though, she said most of the business startups here follow tried and true models. hair salons, nail salons, auto parts stores—nothing too adventurous.
“People do what’s safe; this is the issue here,” Weinberger said. “There’s no innovation.”
She appreciates that starting a unique restaurant or specialty store in a small market is a risky venture. “The question is, who are you catering to? Who’s going to eat at the Indian restaurant? How many doodads can you sell from a unique store to make rent?”
She has noticed that those entrepreneurs who are wading into the Wheeling market are becoming more sophisticated in promoting themselves.
“Local organizations and businesses have found Facebook as a way to advertise,” she said. “If you’re plugged in, you can find these young entrepreneurs who are successful or are trying to be successful, and I think that’s very unique.”
Weinberger, who doesn’t drink, brings a different perspective to social life in Wheeling: It’s heavily dependent on bars.
“I’m not one to go and party at the bevy of local bars where you find the young people,” she said. “I had to find alternative outlets through my temple, through connecting with children of its older active members. It’s all networking, of course.”
While here, she became an active user of meetup.com to find social activities. Still, she thinks more alternatives to the bars—adult sports leagues, volunteer opportunities—would “give people an opportunity to mingle outside the bar or the gym.”
“You make your own fun here. It’s really family oriented,” she added. “So if this town wants to attract young, single people who just aren’t ready for family life, it has to be more than bars and hair salons. It has to be more comprehensive.”
But they need to publicize and program more, he said.
“It’s not out there enough that people say, yes there are venues to go and spend time with friends that don’t require drinking,” he said. As these venues get better at programming more events through the week and getting the word, he believes Wheeling will have a viable alternative to the bar scene.
Along those lines, Weinberger has noticed a very significant positive development since coming here:
“When I first moved here, everything was word of mouth. Things like Yelp—to find reviews or peer reviews of local businesses in the area—were virtually nonexistent,” she said. “That’s virtually exploded in the last two years. I can only imagine what it will be like in the next few years or so when Wheeling comes of digital age.”
One plus that Wheeling has is pretty obvious: It’s not a big city.
That makes possible a lifestyle that big cities cannot replicate.
She thinks her peer group is starting to realize that.
“In the two years I’ve been here, Wheeling has undergone a significant change,” she said. “I’ve noticed the children in my peer group have come back—either to live with their parents because the job markets in the big cities are terrible or they have come back in the hopes of making a go here within their familial, financial safety net. And I think that’s not just unique to Wheeling; that’s happening in my hometown as well.”
But when young people settle here, Weinberger said, they’ll encounter a culture not found in the big city. At least, she did.
Where Weinberger grew up in Rockland County, N.Y., a New York City suburb with more than 300,000 residents, she said she didn’t even know her neighbors.
“Then I went to law school New Jersey—a very urban, dangerous environment, she said. “It was quite a pleasant surprise coming here, where the crime rate is low, people are pleasant and patient, especially at the grocery store. It was a welcome relief from the nasty New Jersey drivers that I battled for three years.”
And the cost of living here is very inexpensive.
“People are generally happy here; they’re happy to with what they have here and there’s no desire to leave. There almost a comfort in the sameness and the core of it is family.
“I have seen another side of humanity, a level of kindness that cannot be replicated in any other city,” Weinberger added. “As a stranger to this place, I never felt more welcome as an outsider, and I now identify myself as from Wheeling.”