Wheeling, West Virginia boasts a rich history deeply intertwined with the westward expansion of the United States. Established in the late 18th century, Wheeling played a pivotal role as a strategic transportation hub during the westward migration. The city is notably associated with the National Road, also known as Route 40, which was one of the nation's earliest major highways. Beginning in the early 19th century, Wheeling became a prominent gateway for pioneers and settlers heading westward, as they journeyed along this vital road that stretched from Cumberland, Maryland, to Vandalia, Illinois. This historic route facilitated the movement of people and goods, contributing significantly to the westward expansion of the United States.
One of Wheeling's most iconic landmarks, the Wheeling Suspension Bridge, further underscored its significance in westward travel. Completed in 1849, this engineering marvel was the longest suspension bridge in the world at the time. Spanning the Ohio River, it connected the National Road to the West. Prior to the bridge’s completion, Route 40 East and Route 40 West were not connected. This bridge served as a critical link in the transportation network, enabling the westward expansion and the growth of commerce and trade. Wheeling, with its location at the crossroads of these historic routes and its pivotal role in facilitating westward travel, holds a special place in American history.
The city of Wheeling is nestled directly off the I-70 corridor on the Ohio River. I-70 is one of the country's most traveled corridors, yet the state of West Virginia does not have a visitor’s center anywhere along it. This absence presents a significant opportunity for enhancing the travel experience for countless travelers. The introduction of a visitor’s center along this crucial route promises to open a window for travelers to immerse themselves in the unique heritage and charm of Wheeling, offering an experience that was previously unavailable to them.
While the area surrounding the project has faced challenges related to crime and urban blight in the past, the new construction initiative is poised to be a new beginning. It holds the potential to not only counter these issues but also transform the entire area into a fresh, aesthetically pleasing space for Wheeling residents and travelers alike. The envisioned project aims to revitalize the blighted and unsafe Knights Inn hotel property into a modern visitors center. This transformation will not only benefit Wheeling's local community but also provide a welcoming and captivating destination for visitors and locals to savor and enjoy, contributing to the rejuvenation and revitalization of the entire region.
In January 2023, the CVB acquired the hotel situated at 949 Main St., located at the entrance of Wheeling’s iconic suspension bridge. The proximity of the five-story building to the historic Wheeling Suspension Bridge, combined with its location near a cliff, presents distinctive structural and environmental hurdles. In July 2023, the Wheeling National Heritage Area Foundation announced they had entered a partnership contract with the CVB and named Tipping Point the real estate development consultant for the project.
The Wheeling Gateway Center project is one of the most important strategic redevelopment sites for the region and the State of West Virginia to increase economic growth through tourism, given the site’s proximity to the I-70 corridor.
The Wheeling-Ohio County Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB), in collaboration with Wheeling Heritage, the City of Wheeling, Ohio County, and the Regional Economic Development (RED) Partnership, is actively pursuing various funding sources for the redevelopment initiative.
To achieve this transformation, a comprehensive funding strategy has been proposed, encompassing several funding channels. These include an allocation of $3,000,000 from the WV Energy Efficiency Grant Fund (EEGF) and Congressionally Directed Spending Match, $6,000,000 from the WV Department of Environmental Protection AMLER Grant, and $1,232,516 from the WV DEP Dilapidated and Abandoned Property grant. These amounts will be supplemented by $9.9 million from Congressionally directed spending, city match, and non-profit funding commitments. The funding synergy from state and various other sources will form the capital stack needed to redevelop the Knights Inn site, situated on 1.04 acres of land.
The project will be carried out in two distinct phases. Phase one will commence with a comprehensive analysis of the site, structure, and environmental factors. This phase will include remediation and demolition of the existing structure. After this initial assessment is finished, the engineering and design phase for demolition drawings will commence, alongside the acquisition of any required permits. Tipping Point will oversee the process of soliciting bids and hiring contractors for the abatement and demolition of the former Wheeling Inn.
In the second phase, the focus will shift to the development of the future visitor’s center, which are integral components of the Wheeling Gateway Center. Community data will be collected to support future planning efforts and generate market reports. This data will serve as the foundation for creating site plans and conceptual drawings.
The CVB, as the property owner and primary contract holder, aims to transform the site into a state-of-the-art facility that will enhance the visitor experience, contribute to the region's economic growth, and celebrate the cultural heritage of Wheeling.
The CVB is partnering with key stakeholders, including the City of Wheeling (CW), Regional Economic Development Partnership (RED), Wheeling Heritage (WH), Ohio County (OC), the State of West Virginia, and members of Congress to advance this significant project.
Visitors will have the opportunity to enjoy stunning views of the Ohio River from various vantage points, such as a rooftop deck, an outdoor plaza, and the historic Wheeling Suspension Bridge. The facility will host amenities like tourism welcome areas, interpretive spaces showcasing Wheeling Heritage, a West Virginia-themed gift shop, dining services, meeting venues, outdoor recreational areas including a café, informational kiosks about regional attractions, and a versatile gathering and entertainment area. Additionally, the site will feature an accessible pathway connecting Main Street to the existing Wheeling Heritage trail, ensuring inclusivity. Notably, in 2022, Tourism Economics reported a record-breaking direct spending by visitors in West Virginia, amounting to $5.3 billion.
The establishment of this center aligns with Governor Justice’s strong commitment to boosting West Virginia's tourism sector and maximizing its profound economic influence. Upon completion, the proposed Visitor & Heritage Center is anticipated to draw approximately 175,000 tourists annually, acting as a significant attraction in the downtown area. This redevelopment initiative is aligned with the broader context of the $300 million infrastructure investment deployed by the Justice Administration in 2020, further enhancing the city's appeal and welcoming visitors to the vibrant Wheeling community.