DURHAM, N.C. — Huntington is advancing to the final round in the America’s Best Communities competition.
The city was announced Wednesday afternoon as one of eight finalists following presentations made by 15 cities, including Charleston, in Durham, North Carolina. Charleston did not make the cut.
Huntington’s bold plan for reinvention was presented by Mayor Steve Williams who showed a panel of judges how Huntington has found a way forward.
Williams passionately laid out four key development plans strategically placed within the city.
“Three and a half years ago we initiated a series of four strategic revitalization projects to transform our most drastically affected neighborhoods and build upon the presence of Marshall,” Williams explained. “We’ve engaged a robust collaboration of citizens, neighborhoods and institutions from the civic, public, private, non-profit and academic sectors. These four projects make up the Huntington Innovation Project, the ‘HIP’ revitalization.”
The four projects include transformation of abandoned factories along the city’s riverfront and adjacent to the Marshall University campus into a modern technical center. The plans included revamping the city’s Highlawn neighborhood and enhancing factories and a research hub for futuristic plastic products. Williams called it a new Poly Tech Center adjacent to St. Mary’s Medical Center location.
“We plan to renew this riverfront for mixed use development, light industrial R and D, advanced manufacturing, and commercial enterprising utilizing the proximity to Marshall and the research capability of its STEM graduates,” Williams said.
Part two of the project was the redevelopment of the city’s Fairfield neighborhood. The plan included razing 1930’s era housing which has created urban blight and replacing it with modern housing at several different levels. The plan also added commercial locations like grocery stores and other vital businesses to benefit the neighborhood. The project is tied into nearby Cabell-Huntington Hospital.
Williams explained the plans for the other end of town included the West Edge Factory where a number of partnerships have created a new solar development, research, and training center alongside a facility aimed at giving out of work coal miners a new career.
The final piece of Williams’ vision for the committee included connecting all of those redevelopment projects, Marshall, the area hospitals and the city’s downtown with broadband, high speed internet service.
“The projects themselves are green and they are sustainable and they are backed by a robust partnership of engaged citizens and community organizations,” he said.
Williams voice cracked as he added back story to the presentation. He detailed the city’s darkest hours of the 1970 plane crash and the impact the disaster had on Huntington. The crash was followed by economic downturns which devastated the city economically. But playing on a popular theme in Huntington, the mayor vowed the “HIP” project would be the vehicle for the city to “rise from the ashes.”
Officials with the City of Charleston, however, presented a plan to get young people to want to live and stay in the city called the ‘E.D.G.E.’ project.
“We’re going to invite them into the conversation,” Charleston City Manager David Molgaard said of the project which stands for Early, Dynamic, Guided, Engagement.
“While living in our downtown, we’re going to put our young professionals through a structurally guided program where we’re going to introduce them to the people and the institutions that make our community tick,” he continued.
The plan calls for construction of 35 residential units, so young people can live within walking distance of the downtown retail, dining and entertainment venues.
Molgaard said the city already has an idea of how they would spend the grant money if they won the “Best Community” title.
“We’ve got the vacant lot downtown (donated by the Charleston Area Alliance). We know what we’re going to build. We have programs in place that we can easily model and adopt to introduce our participants to our community,” he told the judges.
The Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation has provided funds to the city to hire an architect to design the building, Molgaard said.
Huntington was awarded a $100,000 prize grant from competition sponsors Frontier Communications, DISH Network, CoBank and the Weather Channel.
Charleston was awarded $25,000 to pursue several initiatives included in its Community Revitalization Plan.
The eight finalists include: Chicago Lakes Area, Minnesota; Darrington/Arlington, Washington; Huntington, West Virginia; Lake Havasu City, Arizona; Madison, Indiana; Statesboro, Georgia; Tualatin, Oregon; and Valley County/Meadows Valley, Idaho.
The top eight will be reevaluated in April 2017 and narrowed down to three.
The first place community will receive $3 million, second place will be awarded $2 million and $1 million for third.