WHEELING, W.Va. – While previous generations couldn’t wait to flee cities for the relative peace of suburbia, millennials are expressing a desire to live in urban environments.
Young professionals today want housing, employment and dining options all within walking distance of each other, according to Jeff Woda, principal of the Woda Group LLC, who was in Wheeling on Wednesday as a speaker during the West Virginia Municipal League’s annual summer conference. This phenomenon, he said, presents an opportunity for struggling cities to revitalize once-vibrant downtown areas.
“We’re seeing a great shift to downtowns,” Woda said. “We’re seeing a great demand for urban housing downtown.”
Woda’s company, based in Westerville, Ohio, is testing that observation in a big way through a $2 million investment in the Stone Center Lofts, a project that will bring 22 housing units to the top three floors of the former Stone & Thomas building on Market Plaza. The apartments remain on track for occupancy by September, he said, and prospective tenants are lining up to lease them.
“There’s far more demand than we have product,” Woda said. “We’re getting calls from all over the United States from people who want to come back to Wheeling.”
Addressing city leaders from around the state on the topic of downtown living, Woda said the trend has grown in part out of necessity as a scarcity of flat, developable land for new construction has forced developers to take a different approach.
“There’s not those suburban and rural sites available, so we had to think outside the box,” he said.
The Stone Center project isn’t the Woda Group’s first foray into downtown housing. In 2014, the company took a former Masonic lodge that had sat empty for years in downtown Washington Court House, Ohio, – a city of about 13,000 people southwest of Columbus – and converted it into 35 family apartment units.
“It really can work. … That community took an area that was practically blighted and now there are 70 or 80 people living there,” Woda said.
During a lunch break, conference attendees also heard from Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., and state Senate President Bill Cole, R-Mercer.
Cole, who plans to run for governor next year, said the legislature needs to continue handing more authority over to city and county governments to handle their own affairs. He said West Virginia’s highly centralized model of state government is a relic of the Civil War era, when leaders of the brand new Mountain State felt they needed to maintain control over areas where Confederate sympathies posed a threat.
It’s long past time to move on from that way of thinking, according to Cole.
“In West Virginia, Charleston still tries to control everything through regulation and controlling the money. … Local folks are going to be more responsive,” he said.
Cole pointed out West Virginia is losing population faster than any other state, and is in danger of losing one of its three seats in the House of Representatives after the 2020 Census.
“We’ve got to stop this. It’s time we do something differently if we want different results,” Cole said.
The Municipal League conference wraps up today as Wheeling Mayor Andy McKenzie – named as the league’s 2015 Mayor of the Year on Wednesday – will be installed as the organization’s president.