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REDP: Regional Economic Development Partnership





Regional Economic
Development Partnership
 
1100 Main Street, 3rd Floor
P.O. Box 1029
Wheeling, WV 26003
 
Phone: 304.232.7722
Fax: 304.232.7727
Email: info@redp.org

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RED is a division of Ohio Valley Industrial and Business Development Corporation (OVIBDC). Copyright © 2017 Regional Economic Development Partnership

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Loft living: coming to a downtown near you

By Ann Ali, Senior Political Reporter, The State Journal

Housing has nearly always been in short supply in Morgantown — all the way back in the early 1900s.

The South Park neighborhood, across Decker’s Creek, was developed as the first suburb to downtown Morgantown. It quickly filled with affluent families and then experienced a decline in the ’60s.

And as proof that everything old becomes new again, South Park is now one of the neighborhoods Realtor Kathy Martin takes families who tell her they want to live near downtown Morgantown.

And Morgantown is not alone. Cities throughout the state are seeing an increased demand for downtown living, from decently priced apartments and condominiums to high-end, loft-style spaces people typically expect to find in major metropolitan areas.

But building those residential units isn’t always easy. Nor are the spaces always affordable.

Living Through Cycles

A trip to Morgantown today shows all the signs of growth, from West Virginia University property to high quality food and shopping, but not many places to live and even less space to drive or park.

In fact, Martin said when she and other agents with KLM Properties take clients through Morgantown, they plan carefully for the time of day and the traffic flow.

"We have 30,000 students here now, and that’s huge; we are used to 15,000," Martin said. "So we’ve doubled the number of students, but we haven’t doubled the roads."

Martin said condominiums are available in Morgantown at a place called View at the Park, and a few high-end units are in Waterfront Place Hotel, and she, her husband and another couple own a warehouse featuring loft-style living in the Wharf district of Morgantown.

"There are some limits to development downtown," she said. "And Morgantown has done a really good job of maintaining their downtown — it’s a very thriving downtown, and it does make it attractive, but it is limited for people like myself."

Just as shopping has seen a rotation of public preference, from downtown areas to shopping malls and then back to plazas and streets again, housing preferences have been shifting back in from the suburbs.

West Virginia Housing Development Fund Director Erica Boggess said she has seen more of a trend toward renting, but there is always a need for housing — especially rental units.

"From our perspective, it’s a matter of providing the right housing fit, wherever that might be for a person," Boggess said.

And as communities build then rebuild, they often face the question of which order to put the pieces of the economic development puzzle together.

Development Chicken or Egg?

Don Rigby, executive director of the Regional Economic Development Partnership in Wheeling, said he remembers when economic development was "a little more straightforward."

"We find ourselves getting more and more into what I would call community development," Rigby said. "And we’re now trying to figure out how we can ‘incent’ the private sector to step up and do some housing."

Rigby said a new project in Marshall County will work with local banks to provide lower-interest loans for development of the second floors of downtown buildings. Rigby said the partnership also works with Wheeling Jesuit University because the campus has a few constraints on its campus as it continues to grow, which provides an opportunity for the downtown Wheeling area to fill that housing need.

"We do recognize that as a big challenge for all of us — how do you get people to live, work and play in one place?" Rigby said.

Housing is in extremely short supply in Wheeling fueled in part by the boom in Marcellus Shale drilling business.

Joelle Connors-Ennis, business development specialist with RED in Wheeling, said housing and business are, for the most part, being developed simultaneously in West Virginia.

"When you look at living downtown or near downtown, what are the amenities? The night life, the restaurants and what to do on the weekends?" she said. "If this is where you’re living, you need to be able to walk out your front door and have these things, so it becomes like the chicken and the egg — which do you develop first?"

Connors-Ennis said a drive down Main Street may not show the obvious signs of growth, but about 10,000 people work in downtown Wheeling every day.

"I don’t think people realize that these white collar jobs that are office-based, or behind-the-doors jobs," she said. "They’re not retail jobs where people are walking into those businesses and experiencing those businesses.

"There are 400 people who work in the Stone & Thomas building every day, even though you can’t walk in and see what’s going on … and the building is being restored in the process."

Connors-Ennis said she’s helping to look at how to make sure those workers stay in West Virginia rather than driving home to Belmont County, Ohio, or Washington, Pa., and judging by the opinions of members of OVConnect, an organization of young professionals in the Upper Ohio Valley, many people want the "downtown experience."

OVConnect member Tanner Russell said many people in the area just aren’t used to the concept of downtown living.

"A true downtown experience usually requires one to give up a car or relegate it to long-term parking," he said. "Grocery stores, restaurants, et cetera need to be available, and currently those amenities are not available without needing a ride in a car; they are not downtown, and I am not sure which has to come first."

Jamie Remp, chairman of OVConnect, said getting more people to live in downtown Wheeling would require many buildings to be remodeled and brought up to code.

"I think you need to build it first, and then people will come," Remp said.

OVConnect member Timothy McKeen said many young professionals who are new to Wheeling consider living downtown, but more quality housing needs to be made available.

"I understand the real estate market for rentals is very tight right now, so it would seem like the ideal opportunity," McKeen said. "I think most people like Wheeling because it is not very urban, but downtown living seems a bit more urban, so I think it is an uphill battle, for sure."

Live, Work and Play

A few dozen wide-eyed observers studied the layout of the 3,500 square feet listed for $799,999 in an eighth floor loft at 109 Capitol St. in downtown Charleston Sept. 18 as part of the sixth annual Loft Walk, this time billed as part of an "Urban Living Showcase."

Organizers with the Charleston Area Alliance and its committee for young professionals, Generation Charleston, billed the three-day event as a way to feature the ways Charleston can be used for living, working and playing.

"Urban Living showcases what is great about living in Charleston," Eric Morris, co-captain of Generation Charleston’s Professional and Economic Development Team, said in a news release. "We are a small community but with huge talent and potential. This event highlights all of our strengths and has a little something for everyone."

While the price of loft living in Charleston is still high for most young buyers, at the Martinsburg-Berkeley County Convention and Visitors Bureau, Director Andrea Ball said living in downtown Martinsburg can be a bargain.

Ball said Martinsburg has a lot of historic homes, not just apartments, and the downtown area is within walking distance of shops, restaurants and maybe most importantly, the train to Washington, D.C.

"Like many West Virginia towns, there is not new construction, so if you don’t love historic properties, it’s probably not going to be your cup of tea," she said.

Ball also said just about any downtown area has turnoffs that come with inner-city problems such as crime and homelessness.

Ball said the West Virginia Division of Culture and History offers programs to help restore historic properties, and in Martinsburg, the high ceilings and small closets are an affordable, quaint option compared to living in the District of Columbia.

But because of its panhandle location filled with a population of commuters, Ball said Martinsburg struggles to reach those residents to keep them local.

"We make some initiatives to reach out specifically to those people — advertising in the train station, trying to reach out to those people on the Washington, D.C., radio market rather than just here locally," Ball said. "They may live here but they don’t reside here."