New start for old Wheeling hotel
By CASEY JUNKINS
Jun. 18, 2017
WHEELING, W.Va. (AP) — It is not the "full-blown casino" Mark Jaber envisioned after paying $3,000 for the former Rogers Hotel in 2005, but the 14th Street building now houses a business for the first time in nearly three decades.
In fact, after walking into the "Jimmy Gyro" shop on the building's first floor — and seeing steak, lamb and chicken cooking on spinning grillers, along with framed photos of numerous celebrities named "Jimmy" attached to the walls — one might not realize the century-old structure is still officially under a raze-or-repair order from the city of Wheeling.
"I really like the building. I think it has a lot of potential," Jaber said as he sliced meat to prepare one of his gyros. "I've spent about $350,000 throughout the building so far. That includes the new rubber roof and the new electric lines."
Colton Wise, the city's building code official, confirmed there is a new roof on the multi-floor structure.
"Mr. Jaber met the building and fire code requirements to occupy that portion of the structure," Wise said of the side closest to Market Street.
Tom Connelly, assistant director of the city's Economic and Community Development Department, said Jaber received his business license May 12. Connelly added that Jaber had to clear hurdles for zoning, electrical, building, fire and health code compliance in order to open his gyro shop in this location.
It has been a long road for Jaber in improving the building that last operated as a hotel around 1990 along 14th Street between Market and Chapline streets. The improvements to the facade are clear, but Jaber acknowledges the city wants to see more progress.
"The city would like more done. I will meet with them to show them my plans," he said. "I want to put a steakhouse next door. Eventually, we'll redo the upper floors. I had to start somewhere."
Located at 44 14th St., the hotel's exact construction date remains in dispute, but all agree it is about 100 years old. Although it is now faded due to time and weathering, the wall facing Market Street still features a famous sign proclaiming the building is "fireproof."
Many have always believed this statement means the structure is loaded with carcinogenic asbestos, but Jaber said this is not the case.
"It wasn't an issue," he said when asked about an asbestos abatement.
Nevertheless, the hotel began to fall into disrepair by the late 1970s. After the January 1990 closure, city inspectors ruled it condemned by 1994.
The building sat in a continuing state of decay for another decade before Jaber managed to acquire it for just $3,000 in January 2005. Later that year, Jaber learned of a West Virginia Legislature plan to allow table gambling — which was then illegal in the state — at one hotel.
Jaber's hope to put a casino inside the old hotel never materialized because the Legislature ultimately voted to allow table gambling at the state's existing casinos in 2007, while the special privilege Jaber sought for the Rogers Hotel ended up going to The Greenbrier in southern West Virginia.
After the structure largely sat in the same state for the next few years, then-Wheeling resident Larry Tighe filed a formal complaint about it with city officials in January 2009. However, sanitarians at the time said the structure posed no public health threat.
A year later, in early 2010, a firm named "Purple Properties LLC" of Ritchie County, W.Va. agreed to purchase the building for just $20, plus delinquent taxes. However, Jaber eventually redeemed the taxes to maintain ownership.
By 2012, looking through the window facing 14th Street, one could see holes in some of the walls, along with evidence of birds because many windows were left open for several years. And on at least one occasion, bricks have fallen to the ground from the structure's upper floors, causing problems for those below.
Jaber eventually closed the windows in an effort to comply with directions from the Wheeling-Ohio County Health Department. He also completed the roof work, began installing new windows and performed facade improvements along 14th Street.
After several years of work and tens of thousands of dollars spent, Jaber was in position to apply for his right to occupy and use the street-level portion on one side of the building.
Connelly said that in a city replete with old structures, it is not uncommon for officials to allow someone to occupy one portion of a building while they are working to meet code regulations in other areas.
"There are a lot of buildings in town that every floor is not up to code," Connelly said. "They are permitted to use that portion while working on the rest of it."
Jaber said he got the idea for the quick-service spot from his relatives who run a similar business in Cleveland. He operates the business from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday-Friday; and from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday.
"We've had a really good response so far, I think," Jaber said. "We have been getting a nice lunch crowd, and we even get some business around 5 (p.m.) as people are leaving work for the day."
The "Jimmy" theme is obvious upon entering, as photos of Jimmy Stewart, Jimmy Fallon, James "Jimmy" Cagney, and even Steubenville native Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder hang from the walls.
"We've got about 60 'Jimmy' photos right now. I want to get to about 100 of them," Jaber said.
The menu items are also named "Jimmy." In addition to gyros, the business also offers pizza, hummus, a Greek salad and even poutine, a Canadian specialty which features fries, cheese and gravy.
"We want to have good food with reasonable prices in an underserved area," Jaber said.
Jaber said he hopes to open a steakhouse on the main side of the building, which he said will cost him about $250,000 more.
"I own property in Dennison, Ohio. The goal is to raise the cattle there and then serve the beef here for a full farm-to-table operation."
Wise said Jaber would have to meet the same stringent codes that he met for Jimmy Gyro to open if he is going to use the larger portion of the first floor — not to mention everything he would have to do to use the upper floors.
Fire inspectors previously said if Jaber intends to use the main portion of the building, he would eventually need to install a sprinkler system, a fire alarm system and construct an additional fire exit.
For now, however, Jaber is glad to finally be able to show some progress.
"Obviously, the dream is to have the whole place restored to what it once was," he said. "Hopefully, it can happen."