What Happens Now that Huntington Has the Best Community Title?

May 18, 2017

Three years after developing an arduous redevelopment plan throughout the city, Huntington has been named America’s Best Community. The title, awarded last month comes with a $3 million grand prize.

Credit City of Huntington Facebook

Huntington was named America’s Best Community last month in Denver, Colorado. It was the culmination of a three-year process that inspired development of the Huntington Innovation Project. The plan outlines 4 projects that aim to revitalization communities and the improvement of broadband throughout Huntington.

But what happens now that the city has won the competition?

“Our goal was to use this money as leverage to move each project to the next phase, to identify within that project what is the next critical step,” Margaret Mary Layne said. “For example, do we want to apply for a $500,000 grant for whatever and we will use this money as match if we can’t raise the money through a philanthropic process.”

Margaret Mary Layne used to be the city manager. She now runs a consulting business. She volunteered during the competition, working as a liaison between the city and the non-profit Foundation for the Tri-State to help the city obtain the title. The foundation will hold award funds and oversee how that money is used. Mary Witten Wiseman is the director of the foundation. She said success breeds more success and she hopes this grant will be used to leverage a lot more community investment.

“People want to give more money there, because they give a little money and they see what that money has done,” Wiseman said. “So it’s a matter of funding someone that’s already successful and showing what can happen when someone who’s successful, who’s well organized can take the money that’s given and create something really good, then you have a story to tell,” Wiseman said.

Huntington is already collecting these stories. The city already won $150,000 in the preliminary rounds of the America’s Best Community contest and was able to turn that into almost $13 million through donations and grants. But there’s a lot more work to do.

Former city manager Margaret Mary Layne says the hope is that the title can turn 3 million into much more.

“The truth is the designation alone, a national designation is going to open up doors to foundations, national foundations, to federal dollars, to state dollars and individuals from this state and from this community that never would’ve been open before,” Layne said.

There are three big projects the city hopes to tackle with this latest round of competition awards. Renovating the Fairfield neighborhood is a priority, especially along 16th street from the interstate into the city. The goal there is to create a “Health Corridor” between Cabell Huntington Hospital and Marshall University - an extension of medical and university facilities stretching towards each other.

The city also wants to turn abandoned manufacturing sites in the Highlawn neighborhood back into commercial and manufacturing developments. Another priority is improving the Westmoreland neighborhood with a job incubator site at a facility called West Edge. The final piece is turning the city into a gigabit city, which means the deployment of high speed broadband connecting the different economic projects in the city. 

Each of the projects could take millions of dollars.

The West Edge incubator in the west end of Huntington teaches students wood working and how to install solar panels. The focus of West Edge is to provide alternate career opportunities for those who have been laid off or having trouble finding work.

Brandon Dennison is the Executive Director of the Coalfield Development Corporation which runs West Edge. He said the title of the Best Community will help take the old clothing factory to the next step.

“Now what’s going to happen because of the leveraging and I think because of future support that we can attract based on the ABC win, you know we've been doing this place on a shoestring, little bit, by little bit,” Dennison said. “And now I think we’ll have the resources to really take the grand visions we’ve had in our head and make them a tangible reality.”

Those grand visions include the development of more job incubator opportunities in addition to the woodworking workshop and solar training areas. And creating a space where members of the Westmoreland Neighborhood fellowship over music and arts.

Meanwhile over in the Highlawn Community, Executive Director for the Municipal Development Authority Tom Bell has already secured 600k in grants through the Environmental Protection Agency to help cleanup abandoned industrial sites. Discussions are underway with new developers with plans to bring manufacturing back to the area, as well as shopping centers and a possible baseball field. The contest funds will help leverage more grant money to speed up soil remediation.

“Timing is a very important thing, when people are ready to do go, you have to be ready for them,” Bell said. “You can’t say well now it’s going to be two more years before we’re ready, because they want to spend their money now when they’re in the mood, so you have to have these sites available.”

Huntington Mayor Steve Williams has a vision of what Huntington could become. He said it’s the potential here and the hope that helped secure winning the competition. Ultimately, he believes investing in these project will address some of the root causes of the drug and crime issues the city faces.  

“There are some folks that are content to sit up in the cheap seats and just talk about the problems, rather than rolling up their sleeves and getting in and actually working to resolves the problems,” Williams said. “A revitalization plan is intended to fix those things that are not functioning the way they should or are broken.”

Williams and his team hope winning America’s Best Community Competition is just the beginning of a reinvented, healthier Huntington.

The Best Community Competition was sponsored by Frontier, Dish Network, CoBank and the Weather Channel.