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Firm investing $30 million in Wheeling housing

Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register photo A view of the fifth floor of the old Boury Warehouse in downtown Wheeling, which the Woda Group plans to convert into about 70 loft-style apartments.
Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register photo
A view of the fifth floor of the old Boury Warehouse in downtown Wheeling, which the Woda Group plans to convert into about 70 loft-style apartments.

WHEELING, W.Va. — If you’ve been hearing the name “Woda Group” around Wheeling more often lately, there’s a good reason. Over the past 18 months, the company has announced about $30 million worth of housing projects around the city.

Those projects – the Stone Center Lofts and Boury Lofts downtown, and the Capital Greene and LaBelle Greene developments in Elm Grove and South Wheeling – collectively will add about 170 new apartment units in the city over the next couple of years.

They’re targeted to a variety of potential tenants, from young middle-class professionals to seniors and low-income residents feeling the pressure of a spike in rental prices driven by the oil and gas boom.

The projects also encompass a variety of strategies, from new construction to adaptive reuse of historic buildings.

Woda Group President Jeff Woda grew up in Wheeling, graduating from Bethany College in 1987. His Columbus-area company manages more than 9,000 apartment units in 13 states, so he’s not rushing blindly into these investment decisions, nor is he driven solely by nostalgia for his hometown. He’s aware the city has lost 40 percent of its population since 1970, but he also sees things moving in a positive direction.

The Wheeling Metropolitan Statistical Area – consisting of Ohio and Marshall counties in West Virginia and Belmont County in Ohio – experienced the fifth-fastest economic growth last year among the nation’s 385 MSAs, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

And the Wheeling MSA added about 1,000 jobs between 2013 and 2014, many of those in high-wage industries, according to a West Virginia University College of Business and Economics study.

During the past year or so, Williams Lea has added jobs at its operations center, and Wheeling Jesuit University has moved its physical therapy program to downtown Wheeling. And private developers have purchased some older downtown buildings, such as the Professional Building on Market Street and the Flatiron Building at Main and South streets, in hopes of creating more office space.

For those reasons, Woda believes, things are possible today that would not have been when the Woda Group built its first housing development, Providence Greene in North Wheeling, a decade ago.

“With the addition of all the jobs downtown, I think it lends itself to a developer wanting to do more projects,” Woda said.

Of Woda’s four announced projects, the one closest to completion is the Stone Center Lofts, a $2 million investment consisting of 22 one- and two-bedroom units on the upper floors of the Stone Center at Market Plaza. Announced earlier this year, Woda said the first tenants will move in on Monday, and other units will be filled as they’re finished.

Also nearing completion is Capital Greene, located on the site of the former Fort Henry Motor Inn on Lincoln Avenue in Elm Grove. Woda said the company is spending about $7 million on that project, which is a single, three-story building featuring 40 apartments for tenants 55 and older.

A little further in the future is the $6 million LaBelle Greene development in South Wheeling, on which Woda hopes to begin construction before the end of this year. Plans for that project include 40 townhouse-style units on the south end of the former LaBelle Nail Plant property.

The company recently learned its application for tax credits through the West Virginia Housing Development Fund that would have allowed it to build 88 additional units on land now occupied by the idled nail plant itself was turned down. However, this won’t impact plans for the first 40 units, according to Woda, who added the company will receive additional points for already being “in the pipeline” when it re-applies for the tax credits in 2016.

Woda’s most recently announced project, the Boury Lofts, will see the former Boury Warehouse at 16th and Main streets downtown transformed into about 70 loft-style apartments by late next year or early 2017. It also would represent the company’s biggest investment in the city to date, at about $13 million.

Through the Stone Center and Boury developments, Woda is making its first foray into market-rate, non-rent-subsidized housing in the area. Those particular projects are also seeking a growing demand among young professionals for urban living.

“I think this is a really new type of housing for the city of Wheeling,” Woda said.

Although all of these projects have been announced since early 2014, the ideas and discussions behind them have been in the works for several years, in some cases. Work to find financing options for the Boury Lofts began more than two years ago, and Woda said Capital Greene is a project about which he began thinking 13 or 14 years ago.

“The thing about my business is, you don’t start a development and get it done in a week,” Woda said.

The new housing options also makes the region easier to market, something Don Rigby and his group at the Regional Economic Development Partnership are pleased to see as they continue efforts to attract development associated with the natural gas industry.

Rigby said the lack of affordable housing in Wheeling had been an issue prior to the natural gas boom, and the influx of workers has simply exacerbated the problem.

“We’ve driven a fair number of jobs into the region, and one of the things we always discuss is how we get people to live here. The housing issue has been a glaring need for us,” he said.

And while the Woda developments will help, more housing is needed.

“The Boury Lofts will help tremendously. … Jeff (Woda) was the first willing to take a risk with market-rate apartments, and he’s having success. His success here has proven the market,” Rigby said.

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