WHEELING - In the location where patrons once enjoyed lunch at the Stone & Thomas Tea Room, Wheeling Jesuit University now will provide a free physical therapy clinic as part of the college's move to downtown.
Citing space limitations at its current campus, as well as the desire to help redevelop the Friendly City's downtown area, WJU officials joined Wheeling leaders Wednesday to announce plans to relocate 100 physical therapy doctoral students and 25 faculty members to the Stone Center by September.
"We reminisce about the old days of downtown Wheeling. These are the new days," said Mayor Andy McKenzie. "I hope, one day, to see Wheeling Jesuit occupying more of this building. I hope to see hundreds of students living downtown."
PROGRAM HEADED TO DOWNTOWN WHEELING — Wheeling Jesuit University physical therapy doctoral students Chelsea Amos, left, and Erin Bair toured the first floor of the downtown Wheeling Stone Center on Wednesday. WJU plans to move its physical therapy program to the building by September. - Casey Junkins
Before WJU students begin living downtown, however, the college will rent one and one-half floors of the Stone Center, which is the name given to the historic Stone & Thomas building in the 1000 block of Main and Market streets by its current owner, the Wheeling-based Regional Economic Development Partnership.
RED Executive Director Don Rigby confirmed this will mark the first time these particular spaces have been occupied since Elder-Beerman, which had taken over the Stone & Thomas store, closed in the early 2000s. The document processing firm Williams Lea maintains an office in the building.
"We've been working hard to fill the Stone Center with the right tenants," Rigby said. "Having this program in the Stone Center is not only important to us, it is a great fit. With these students downtown, we will have more activity that will benefit the entire area."
The Rev. James Fleming, currently the university's executive vice president, will succeed Richard Beyer as WJU president on July 1. Fleming called moving the physical therapy program downtown "a dream come true."
"Great cities have great universities," he said, again emphasizing the college's desire to assist Wheeling in redeveloping its downtown.
Fleming said the free physical therapy clinic will be on the first floor to provide easy access for those in need of care, while an auditorium for student instruction will be behind the clinic. Construction is ongoing, as officials said there is no time to waste with the 2013-14 school year only about five months away.
Fleming said WJU hopes to grow to have 150 students in the downtown physical therapy program with 40 faculty members over the next few years.
"This move is in line with our tradition and will provide state-of-the-art educational facilities for our students that we cannot offer on our main campus. It will also help revitalize downtown Wheeling," Fleming said.
As WJU works on its project at the north end of Wheeling's downtown, West Virginia Northern Community College is constructing new facilities at the south end in the area of 16th Street.
Fleming said he believes it is "incumbent" upon institutions of higher learning in the Wheeling area to be involved in the city's renaissance.
While exploring the WJU construction site Wednesday, physical therapy students Chelsea Amos and Erin Bair said they were excited to move to downtown Wheeling, noting they will have a significantly larger work area.
"The new location will provide added space for labs, study area and classrooms," said Craig Ruby, WJU's director of physical therapy.
McKenzie said the city will embark on an "aggressive" project in the Market Plaza to help WJU grow and thrive in the downtown.
Rigby and Fleming said there is a possibility of renovating the upper floors of the Stone Center to provide dormitories for WJU students. Though this is not a done deal, Fleming said his university could use the space.
"Every bed we have is filled. We have no official residence for graduate students," he said, noting there are about 400 such students at WJU studying a variety of disciplines.