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Health firm to build headquarters in Wheeling

Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register photo by Scott McCloskey Wheeling Mayor Andy McKenzie holds up an apple as he announces The Health Plan’s impending relocation of its corporate headquarters from St. Clairsville to downtown Wheeling, in a nod to the health insurance firm’s well-known logo. Looking on is West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.
Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register photo by Scott McCloskey
Wheeling Mayor Andy McKenzie holds up an apple as he announces The Health Plan’s impending relocation of its corporate headquarters from St. Clairsville to downtown Wheeling, in a nod to the health insurance firm’s well-known logo. Looking on is West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.

WHEELING, W.Va. — The Health Plan’s anticipated spring groundbreaking on its new corporate headquarters represents something that hasn’t happened in about 30 years – new construction by a private company in downtown Wheeling.

On Wednesday, the non-profit health insurance company announced plans to build a $16 million, four-story building on city-owned greenspace in the 1100 block between Main and Market streets. The company will bring with it about 325 employees currently working out of its St. Clairsville headquarters.

“I’m pleased to announce that The Health Plan is coming home to downtown Wheeling,” Jim Pennington, president and CEO of The Health Plan, said during Wednesday’s announcement at the Stone Center on Market Plaza, not far away from the soon-to-be construction site.

To city leaders, that means another 325 people parking and eating lunch downtown on a daily basis.

“It’s a great thing for shops and restaurants, and for property values,” Mayor Andy McKenzie said.

The Health Plan will own the property and pay 100 percent of the cost of constructing the 53,000-square-foot building, McKenzie said. The city did not offer any tax incentives to the business to relocate, he added.

Although Wheeling has spent about $1.8 million since 2007 to buy and clear the 1100 block properties, the city won’t receive any compensation for the land – which, McKenzie said, was part of the plan all along.

“It was bought and (cleared) for economic development,” he said of the 1100 block. “It was always available for someone who was willing to come to downtown and be a part of the revitalization.”

A chance to breathe new life into Wheeling’s downtown played a role in The Health Plan’s decision to relocate, according to Pennington, but it wasn’t the only reason. The company was established in 1979 as a West Virginia corporation, and hopes to expand its footprint in the Mountain State as a Medicare, Medicaid and Public Employees Insurance Agency provider.

“To have our corporate headquarters in another state didn’t make sense to me,” Pennington, who has led the company since July 2014, said.

The Health Plan hopes to finish construction on the 1100 block during the second quarter of 2017, with plans showing a modern-looking building of glass, brick and steel, a parking lot and a large green lawn with plenty of landscaping on the campus. When finished, it will be the first privately built office building to open in downtown Wheeling since the Century Equities building on Main Street in the mid-1980s, according to McKenzie and Don Rigby, executive director of the Regional Economic Development Partnership.

There will only be about 30 parking spaces available at The Health Plan’s new headquarters, according to McKenzie. That means most employees will have to pay for monthly leases at city parking lots or garages around downtown.

Completion of the project will require the relocation of two remaining businesses on the 1100 block – Vocelli’s Pizza and Panda Chinese Kitchen. City Council is expected to vote Dec. 15 to purchase those structures, along with two buildings across the street from the Health Plan site at 1107 and 1109 Main St., using $134,000 in tax increment financing revenue.

McKenzie said both Vocelli’s and Panda expect to relocate within the downtown – Panda to the former Vance Lock and Safe building across from Market Plaza, and Vocelli’s to a yet-to-be-determined location. The two vacant buildings on Main Street the city will purchase are not related to the Health Plan project, but McKenzie said the city will be looking for someone to refurbish and develop them.

For city officials, the journey from the decision to purchase the 1100 block property to Wednesday’s announcement was fraught with difficult and not-always-popular decisions, according to McKenzie.

“It shows that strong leadership in this city will allow great things to happen. … We’ve continued to move forward. We believe in ourselves, and we’ve never sat back and said someone needs to fix our problems for us,” he said.

Vice Mayor Eugene Fahey echoed McKenzie’s comments, calling Wednesday “a great day for Wheeling.”

Glenn Elliott, who is opposing Fahey in next year’s mayoral election, said he’s excited by The Health Plan’s announcement, but pointed out that it took almost a decade and significant taxpayer expense to get to that point.

“I commend all involved for their efforts to bring this spectacular addition to our downtown, but going forward, we don’t have the luxury to be that patient with development opportunities,” he said. “We need to be focused on strategies encouraging developers to populate our considerable stock of existing buildings with residents and businesses in the near term.”

Also on hand for Wednesday’s announcement were Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and Senate President Bill Cole, R-Mercer, who is hoping to succeed the term-limited Tomblin next year as West Virginia’s chief executive.

“We’ve been able to lower our business taxes, we’ve lowered our debt and we’ve strengthened our education system. … The secret’s out, and people know that West Virginia is a great place to do business,” Tomblin said.

Cole said the new Health Plan headquarters will be a “beautiful addition” to downtown Wheeling.

“It’s an example of government and business working together to create positive change in one of West Virginia’s greatest cities,” Cole said.

The Health Plan employs a total of more than 400 people in its four offices at St. Clairsville, Charleston, Morgantown and Massillon, Ohio.

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