MORGANTOWN — Not many years ago, just blocks from downtown Morgantown, an overgrown railroad track ambled between rows of abandoned warehouses and the Monongahela River. It was the city's seedy backside, a place to be avoided.
Today, Morgantown's downtown riverfront is an appealing and vibrant place. Host to travelers from around the world, venue for some of the city's biggest celebrations, it's the address to have: the Wharf District.
Several blocks of rehabilitated warehouse space south of the Westover bridge make up the core of the Wharf District. But a broader definition of this reclaimed neighborhood, one that takes advantage of its fluid connections with adjacent areas, encompasses dining and lodging, upmarket office space and condominiums, recreation and entertainment.
Revitalization of the Wharf District has only come about through timely public investments, extraordinary private enterprise and a devoted volunteer commitment.
It could be dated, perhaps, to a 1995 gift of $200,000 from the Hazel Ruby McQuain Foundation — a gift that set in motion an amphitheater and riverfront park that anchors the north end of the Wharf.
What leveraged that into full-blown redevelopment was West Virginia University's decision to make its new administration building a riverfront development project. Placing a $100 million bet that the area could be transformed, developers Platinum Properties proposed buildings in the late 1990s at One and Two Waterfront Place — now a WVU administration building and the Waterfront Place Hotel — and a parking garage, all of which anchored a south end for the Wharf and generated confidence that the blighted middle section could be brought back to life.
In that middle section, developers Glenmark Associates took a chance on several properties, with great result: Two of the biggest draws in the Wharf District today, Oliverio's Ristorante and the Mountain State Brewing Co., offer indoor and outdoor riverside dining in Glenmark-renovated warehouse space.
But what really enlivens the Wharf District is its place along the river and rail corridors. The 1998 opening of the Mon River Trails Conservancy's first mile of the Caperton rail-trail along the river began an extensive volunteer development of more than 50 miles of trail that extends to Prickett's Fort along the Monongahela River to the south, Pennsylvania along the river to the north, Preston County up along Deckers Creek to the east, all part of a much more extensive trail network. Bikers, joggers, families and pets pass through at all hours.
And a 2004 state economic development grant of $14 million drew matching funds for what has become the Morgantown Event Center trade show and theater venue, as well as the Upper Mon River Center marina — now a destination convenient to services for travelers by boat and home base for the Monongahela Rowing Association.
Early visions of the neighborhood imagined a greater variety of residential options along with retail that has not yet materialized. And all of that is still possible: Some empty old warehouse space remains, along with lots that have become valuable real estate. The Wharf District's transformation may be only partly complete, with more to offer in the future.