By ERIC AYRES
WHEELING — City leaders in Wheeling hope to ensure that touring shows can continue performing at the Capitol Theatre for many years to come, and they are upping the ante in recommended American Rescue Plan Act funding to make sure that happens.
Members of the Finance Committee of Wheeling City Council met Tuesday night to review and approve recommendations for federal ARPA funding for the Wheeling Park Commission, WesBanco Arena and the Capitol Theatre.
Officials noted that each of these entities was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, qualifies for these pandemic relief funds and represents investments that are economic drivers for the community, bringing a considerable amount of spending power from outside of the city into Wheeling.
The Finance Committee not only approved the requests for each entity but also amended the request for the Capitol to a much higher amount to include what officials said are much-needed upgrades to the historic venue’s fly system — the weights, counterweights and pulleys that control the different sets that shows use.
Councilman Dave Palmer, chairman of the Finance Committee, said when the requests for WesBanco Arena and the Capitol Theatre were originally put together, officials had anticipated that grant dollars or other sources of funding could be secured for the theater’s most pressing need — the fly system upgrades.
Federal earmarks had been sought for the fly system, but they were not included as part of the packages that were approved by Congress earlier this spring.
“The fly system is the original — so we’re taking it back to 1929 or 1930,” said Palmer, who also serves as a member of the Greater Wheeling Sports and Entertainment Authority board.
“What’s going to happen is we’re going to lose Broadway shows if we don’t replace this system.”
Palmer noted that this project is something that has been a top priority for a number of years, but attempts to secure funding for it have been met with dead ends. With the city of Wheeling allocated a total of $29.5 million in ARPA funding that must be spent on eligible projects by the end of 2024, this option allows the system to be upgraded and for the “show to go on,” officials noted.
“This allows us to fund it and to keep the Capitol as the economic driver that it is to bring more people into the city,” Palmer said.
“We’re well over 90 years old with this system,” added Denny Magruder, executive director of the Capitol Theatre and WesBanco Arena. “Sometimes we’re hanging 60,000, 70,0000 to 80,000 pounds of weight. All those props that you see with the shows coming in are all suspended from that system.”
Magruder said the old rope system has been well maintained over the years, but it is “way, way obsolete” at this point. “We have a lot of these touring shows – the Moscow Ballet and a number of Broadway shows – that say ‘look, if this isn’t repaired before the next touring season, we’re just not going to be able to come back. We’re not comfortable with it.’”
Nationally touring Broadway shows have plenty of options for stops and can play a number of other theaters instead of the Capitol on their tours, Magruder said, noting that they want to make sure that does not happen.
“So that is our number one request,” he said.
“Over the past five years, the CVB has been able to retire all debt service on the theater and meet all of the primary upgrades to the tune of $2.4 million,” said Frank O’Brien, executive director of the Wheeling Convention and Visitors Bureau. “So, for the first time in the history of the theater, it does not have a mortgage and it’s owned entirely by the community. And it will always be an asset, as long as we can update the foundation issue as well as the fly system, we can get another 50 years of use out of that system.”
Also included in the theatre’s original $365,900 request are various safety upgrades and other improvements. Magruder noted that chairs used for events on the floor date back to 1997, as do the risers used for graduations and other events.
“We need to replace those as well,” Magruder said. “The company that made those went out of business in 1986.”
Magruder and O’Brien thanked the city for their support in making both of these venues successful.
“The theater did close for 18 months as a direct result of the pandemic,” O’Brien added. “For every ticket that is sold there, there are two fees attached: an operating fee, as well as a preservation fee. The preservation fee is held by the community foundation for infrastructure upgrades … and all of that money was lost because of those 18 months. So we are playing catch-up, and we’d really appreciate some help on that.”
Palmer proposed that the Capitol theater’s ARPA funding amount be increased to $800,000 so the fly system upgrades can be done. The WesBanco Arena request was for $695,000, and the request from the Wheeling Park Commission was for $1,885,110.
The committee agreed to recommend all of the requests and to move them on to city council for further review.
City leaders had met with members of the Wheeling Park Commission on their request, which Palmer said will bring millions of dollars in improvements above what the city may provide through ARPA funds.
“The impressive part of their project is, not only are they shovel-ready, but they’re matching dollar-for-dollar everything we are awarding to them,” Palmer said of the proposed upgrades at Wheeling Park, including the ice rink, the White Palace and other improvements.
“That totals up to $3.7 million, and they’re asking for $1.8 million and change,” Palmer said.