WHEELING - The multi-million-dollar J.B. Chambers Recreation Park in East Wheeling is expected to be complete by May, ending what will be a nearly four-year journey from the project's initial announcement.
Those four years have included their share of controversy - including legal disputes over the city's use of eminent domain, a settlement with then-Councilman James Tiu who refused the city's initial offers for a house he owned on the block and, most recently, the discovery of a grave marker and human remains beneath the construction site - but city officials believe the project already has renewed a sense of pride in the neighborhood and ultimately will be a centerpiece to its revival.
Plans for the new park include two main components: a lighted, artificial turf field and a new playground to replace the old Elks Playground, which was removed during the block's demolition.
The field will be suitable for a number of sports, including football, soccer, softball and lacrosse, and will have its own drainage system. Limited space for spectators means it's unlikely it could be used for varsity high school games, but Mayor Andy McKenzie envisions it as an attractive place for youth soccer leagues to play.
Those familiar with the Elks Playground - opened around 1910 - will find something much different when they visit the J.B. Chambers Recreation Park following its completion. More modern playground and climbing equipment will join the traditional swing sets and sliding boards, installed atop a rubberized fall protection system.
There also will be new lighted basketball courts and restroom facilities.
Construction of the park alone will cost about $2.08 million. But the total pricetag for the project is roughly $3.3 million, taking into account the $1.2 million spent on related items in the years leading up to last fall's groundbreaking.
Purchasing the properties on the block - including the three Wheeling resorted to eminent domain to acquire - cost $670,000. The city spent another $345,000 to demolish the buildings, and $188,000 for Alpha Architects and Engineers of Morgantown to design the park.
The city's Recreation Department will be in charge of upkeep for the facility, and officials don't expect to see a direct cost for day-to-day maintenance.
"We already have the staff. We have a fixed cost in maintaining our recreational facilities," McKenzie said.
One potential drawback to a turf field is that artificial surfaces don't grow back like grass does, so wear and tear eventually will force its replacement. Although major costs such as surface leveling and drainage won't have to be repeated, artificial turf isn't cheap, at around $4.75 per square foot.
However, McKenzie said the artificial turf field installed 10 years ago at Wheeling Island Stadium - which plays host to Wheeling Park and Wheeling Central Catholic high school sporting events, as well as the annual Super Six football championships - has held up well, and he doesn't see deterioration as a major concern.
"In 15 years, if it costs $400,000 to put a new field down, so be it," McKenzie said.
Known funding sources for the project include $1.25 million in publicly announced private sector donations; $1.2 million from city taxpayers; and $600,000 in state and federal grants, most of it Community Development Block Grant funding. The city remains $200,000 to $300,000 short of its fundraising goal, McKenzie said.
In order to make up the funding shortfall and account for donation pledges to be made over a period of years, City Council last year approved taking out a bank loan of up to $1.15 million to get construction started.
McKenzie said he can't project the economic impact of the project in terms of a dollar figure. To him, it's more about changing the public's overall perception of the East Wheeling neighborhood - something he's already seeing in the form of increased neighborhood pride and community involvement, even though the park's opening is months away.
"It was never about a sports field. ... It was about how can we make downtown Wheeling better," McKenzie said.
While it may be unrealistic to expect a rash of new retail businesses to pop up around the J.B. Chambers Recreation Park, McKenzie believes its presence will, over time, make East Wheeling a more attractive place to live and, consequently, to do business. Existing businesses such as Convenient and Neely's Grocery can expect to see an uptick in sales as people who don't normally frequent the neighborhood look for somewhere to stop for a snack or cold beverage after using the field.
The park is also an opportunity to make a great first impression, McKenzie said, as it will be situated near a major gateway into the city - the 16th Street exit from W.Va. 2.
"The visual aspect of coming in (to the city) on 16th Street and seeing kids playing in the downtown area, that's going to help business. That's going to help residential," McKenzie said.
Another key to the future of the neighborhood may be right across the street from the planned park in the old Clay School building. Building owner Darryl Baynes bought it for $65,000 from the Ohio County Board of Education in 2003 but hasn't been able to secure funding to make his vision of opening a youth science and recreation center there a reality - something McKenzie sees as a cautionary tale for local governments about allowing people to speculate on property without assurance they have the resources to maintain it.
Baynes has said he doesn't have the estimated $300,000 it will take to tear down the school, and there isn't much enthusiasm for using taxpayer funds to remove the building among city leaders.
McKenzie believes the old school property, which takes up most of an entire block, would be a great place for new housing - something he's said repeatedly Wheeling desperately needs.
"I think it presents a lot of opportunity. Time will tell what the opportunity is," McKenzie said of the Clay School property.