Organization wins award for preservation

WHEELING — Wheeling Heritage won a national award for its work revitalizing and preserving Wheeling on Monday evening.

The organization was named one of three winners of the 2019 Great American Main Street Award by the National Main Street Center at its conference in Seattle.

The annual award recognizes communities’ Main Street programs that “serve as a model for comprehensive, preservation-based commercial district revitalization,” according to Main Street America.

Alex Weld, project and outreach manager at Wheeling Heritage, pointed to the city’s downtown vacancy rate as an indicator of the organization’s success. When Wheeling’s Main Street program launched in 2015, vacancy of downtown buildings was at 32 percent. Now, that figure is at 15 percent.

“It’s still not zero, but that’s a significant change,” Weld said. “I think being here every day living here and working here, you might miss things like that. To be able step back and say in the last three years, this is a real thing that’s happened, I think that’s incredible.”

Wheeling Heritage was chosen by a national jury of community development professionals and leaders in the fields of economic development and historic preservation. The award considers criteria like demonstrated impact, commitment to preservation and engagement with the community, according to Main Street America.

“In only a few years, Wheeling Heritage has changed the narrative around what is possible for their downtown,” National Main Street Center President and CEO Patrice Frey said in a press release. “Wheeling Heritage has brought significant economic opportunity to their Main Street, harnessed the historic character of their downtown, and helped residents believe in the future of their community.”

Since 2015, downtown Wheeling has seen 124 building improvements and added 37 net new businesses, according to the press release.

“We, Wheeling Heritage, are the people who have the award handed to them, but it’s really a community award. It’s an award to Wheeling,” Executive Director Jake Dougherty said. “I think that our partners and others who have been working at this same goal toward revitalization for decades, they deserve a lot of the credit for this type of work.”

Dougherty also cited the increase in the state historic tax credit and the organization’s Show of Hands and CO.STARTERS programs as major successes.

However, Dougherty and Weld stressed that, despite winning the award, Wheeling Heritage isn’t done with their efforts.

“There’s still big challenges ahead of us,” Weld said. “There are buildings that are difficult to develop and plenty of entrepreneurs still trying to find their footing here. This award isn’t to stop and celebrate everything we’ve done and say ‘great job our work here is done.'”

Dougherty echoed that sentiment, adding that he’s happy to see Wheeling Heritage’s work in the community validated.

“While it’s really excellent to receive this award … I also know that nobody on our team thinks that we should be stopping right now. And the community wants to see more results and we need to make sure that happens.”

Moving forward, the organization plans to roll out new programs, engage with new partners, and find new ways to tell people’s stories, Dougherty said.

For one, Wheeling Heritage plans to start a volunteer committee of people who live or work downtown to do small projects such as creating flower baskets or public art, Weld said.

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