How Huntington became America’s Best Community.
First, there were more than 300. Then there were 50. Now, there were 15. Soon there would be eight.
In late April 2016, 15 semifinalists for the America’s Best Communities (ABC) competition gathered in Durham, North Carolina. The teams, hailing from all over the United States, were competing for a $3 million grand prize to help revitalize their communities. Some would go home disappointed, if not empty-handed. But in hopes of keeping everyone excited about the work still ahead, organizers planned a special outing before judging began.
The competitors piled into a bus for a tour of Durham to see firsthand how the home of Duke University had reinvigorated the struggling parts of its community. But as the tour group left the hotel, one delegation was conspicuously absent.
The team from Huntington, West Virginia, had opted to stay behind. Mayor Steve Williams wanted to focus all his attention on making his city the kind of place where, someday, people could take an urban revitalization tour. His team holed up in the Hilton Durham’s vacant bar, going over each detail of their presentation. The next day, they would present their expansive plans as a 10-minute sales pitch before the panel of judges that would decide the city’s fate.
Most other communities had prepared PowerPoint presentations to illustrate their plans. Huntington went a different way. Joe Murphy, then-president of Huntington-based Trifecta Productions, had prepared a video filled with drone footage, time-lapse videography, historical photos, and renderings of the city’s future. Williams practiced his speech until every word was timed perfectly to the images on the screen.
Presentations began the following morning in the hotel’s conference room. When it came Huntington’s turn, Williams offered a perfunctory “good morning” before launching in.
“‘Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood.’ These words were spoken by the renowned architect Daniel Burnham. And now, they are the mantra of Huntington, West Virginia.”
Williams told of the 1970 plane crash that killed 37 members of the Marshall University football team and “brought the city to its knees.” He recalled how the rebuilt team, of which he was a member, revived the community’s spirits by winning a national championship. “Forty-six years later, I’m the mayor of Huntington. And I’m leading a team, building a program with the purpose to lift our community up from the despair and devastation that has plagued our region.”
At stage right, a projector showed a bird’s-eye view of brownfields in Huntington’s Highlawn district, blighted housing in its Fairfield neighborhood, and the city’s West End, where the shift whistle at the former Corbin Ltd. factory has been silent for 15 years.
Between these images flashed prophesies of Huntington’s future. Thriving 21st century manufacturing facilities. Neighborhoods with safe, affordable housing. An old factory transformed into a space for artisans, agripreneurs, renewable energy prospectors, and anyone else looking to forge a new economic future for the city.
Then the drone footage cross-faded to an image of a darkened globe. A beacon of light blasted up from the Ohio Valley, growing brighter and brighter until its blinding whiteness covered the screen. “When someone … looks down on those bright city lights, they’re going to see a bright, brilliant beacon of light,” Williams said, his voice shaking as if on the verge of tears. “And recognize Huntington, West Virginia, is going to again rise up from the ashes.”
The conference room swelled with applause. Williams pulled out a white handkerchief and wiped his shining brow. “Somehow, in spite of all the practice, the passion was there as if it was the first time he said it,” says Margaret Mary Layne, former city manager and a member of Huntington’s ABC team. “It was basically like going to church.”
Later that day, ABC organizers announced Huntington would be one of the eight finalists competing for the $3 million grand prize. Now the team had less than a year to show real progress on a plan many thought overambitious.
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The idea for america’s best communities came to former Frontier CEO Maggie Wilderotter after a meeting with Tony Hsieh, founder of the online apparel seller Zappos. In 2012, Hsieh launched the Downtown Project, investing $350 million of his own money to kickstart housing and small business development in struggling sections of downtown Las Vegas.
It got Wilderotter thinking about the small communities Frontier served. They didn’t have wealthy benefactors like Hsieh but were hurting just the same. “I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting to see if we could put a contest together to create the next great city in America?’”
She wanted the competition—open to communities in Frontier’s 27-state coverage area with populations between 9,500 and 80,000—to encourage ambitious change. “Not, ‘Let’s renovate one park.’ It’s, ‘Let’s renovate a community from one end to another.’”
To achieve that, she decided the competition should hand out $10 million, disbursed over multiple rounds in increasing amounts, “so it would have legs.” Wilderotter secured $5 million from Frontier’s board, then got farm lender CoBank, The Weather Channel, and DISH Network to contribute the rest.
But the competition would offer something more valuable than cash. It would force cities to take a hard look at their problems, think big about ways to solve them, and pull together teams of like-minded locals to get started. Prize money or not, every participating community would walk away with all the groundwork necessary for real, lasting change.
In late summer 2014, company representatives set up a meeting with Williams at city hall to pitch the competition. As they laid out the details, the mayor interrupted. “You can stop right now and write us the check,” he said. “Because we’re going to win this thing.”
“He said it in a joking way,” Layne remembers. Except it wasn’t a joke. Williams, the son of a football coach, was brought up with a philosophy that he still follows: “If you act like a champion, you’ll be one.”
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The city’s problems are well-documented. Huntington has experienced the same unsparing chain reaction playing out in cities nationwide. First came the loss of industry, then the economic hardships. And, since desperate people do desperate things, drugs and crime weren’t far behind.
Mayor Williams knows the problems well. He moved to town as a teenager and, in the 1980s, served as Huntington’s director of economic development and city manager before going to the state Legislature. He then spent more than a decade focused on a career in finance before joining city council in 2008.
After he was elected mayor in 2012, Williams and his team began the slow process of crafting plans to fix the city’s troubles. When Frontier told him about the ABC competition, Williams saw it as an excuse to attack all his goals at once, and in short order. “I thought, ‘This is providential,’” he says.
Not everyone shared his go-big-or-go-home philosophy. A few weeks after their initial meeting with Frontier, core members of Huntington’s ABC team gathered at the city’s police department to start shaping their plan. As the conversation progressed, it seemed they were focused solely on the West End.
“That’s it?” Williams asked. “That’s all we’re going to move forward with?” He challenged them to think bigger. So they did.
The resulting document, known as the Huntington Innovation Project Revitalization Plan, is broken into four parts, three of which are devoted to specific neighborhoods.
In the Highlawn district, the city’s plans call for revitalizing 78 acres of former industrial properties into a high-tech manufacturing center that will also feature a hotel and conference center, retail and green space, and a new baseball stadium.
In the Fairfield neighborhood, plans include renovating old homes and building new ones to create safe, affordable housing, making Hal Greer Boulevard safer for pedestrians and cyclists, and improving stormwater drainage. The city also planned to expand the A.D. Lewis Community Center and transform the former Northcott Court housing project into a mixed-use property with retail shops and apartments.
Plans for the West End would help the Coalfield Development Corporation convert the former Corbin factory into “WestEdge Factory” with a solar panel installation business and training center, a woodworking shop, agribusiness operations, art studios, and more. Building facades and streetscapes would be improved in the Central City commercial district and vacant industrial properties would be revitalized.
Those three parts of the plan are connected by the fourth—“Gigabit City,” an initiative to bring high-speed internet to Huntington.
It was an ambitious plan, to say the least. Just one portion of it could keep some communities busy for a decade. But given the scale of Huntington’s problems, Williams and his team believed a piecemeal solution was no solution at all.
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Bold plans have a way of scaring people. A representative from Frontier even suggested the city narrow its focus, at one point. “She said, ‘Mayor, you need to just zero down to one project,’” Williams remembers. But he was undeterred. “I said, ‘That’s not what we’re doing.’”
In the days leading up to Williams’ impassioned speech in Durham, there were murmurings among the city’s ABC team that the city should pare down its plans. “There were people who believed if we had too many things, it would confuse the judges and they wouldn’t see a direct success,” Layne says.
Williams decided to address the murmurs head-on and got everyone on a conference call. “The mayor said, ‘Here’s the deal. I will withdraw from the contest rather than cut out any part of this,’” Layne says.
The line went silent. Williams softened a bit. He started talking through ways to trim the plan, focusing on the Highlawn neighborhood while keeping the other pieces as long-term goals.
But the longer the call went, the more everyone came to realize there wasn’t a good way to make the plan smaller. They would abide by their “make no little plans” mantra.
The all-or-nothing approach proved successful in Durham. But to win the grand prize in April 2017, Huntington had to make convincing progress, fast.
“I think we did at least three years of work in 11 months. I’m not exaggerating,” Layne says. In February 2017, the city rolled out the Huntington–Highlawn Brownfields Innovation Zone Plan, a detailed imagining of the neighborhood’s future. The city made quick progress in acquiring the properties key to those plans, and Marshall expressed formal interest in taking over the baseball stadium and an academic science laboratory, while Highlawn-based polymer producer Rubberlite formed a new nonprofit corporation to focus solely on the development of the polymer technology center.
On the West End, the Coalfield Development Corporation’s solar business trained more than 20 solar installers. Plans were completed for the former Corbin Factory and construction began. The neighborhood’s River to Rail taskforce and other community groups secured funding to plant trees, install bike racks, create murals, and spruce up planters and green spaces.
In Fairfield, blighted housing was demolished or repurposed. Plans got underway to open a grocery store and make improvements to Hal Greer. Perhaps most important, the city formed the Fairfield Alliance, a group made up of community members and representatives from Cabell Huntington Hospital and Marshall University.
For the Gigabit City plan, the city instituted a “dig once” policy.
Anytime workers repair a water or sewer line, they must now lay conduit for future fiber-optic lines. The city also created a plan to obtain funding for broadband infrastructure and began looking for contractors.
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The america’s best communities finalists gathered for the last time in Denver, Colorado. It was April 2017, nearly three years after the competition began.
There were no sales pitches in Denver. Judges had made their decision by the time the teams arrived, based on each community’s written plans. The Huntington team still had doubts. Although they had plenty to show—plans made, policies instituted, money received, partnerships formed—it wasn’t as evident as some of their competitors’ progress. “You couldn’t say ‘Here’s a building, we’re done,’” Layne says.
Gathered in yet another hotel conference room, the Huntington team gave in to superstition and seated themselves in the exact same order as in Durham. They locked hands as emcee Vince Gill read through the winners.
Statesboro, Georgia, won the third-place, $1 million prize. Second place, with its $2 million award, went to Lake Havasu City, Arizona. “We thought we’re either in, or we’re nothing,” Layne remembers.
Everyone held their breath as Lake Havasu City finished its thank-yous. Gill took the podium again. “The big winner, $3 million—Huntington, West Virginia.” The team was shell-shocked. “We just kept sitting there,” Layne says. “I finally said, ‘We’ve got to get up. We’ve got to go up there.’”
Back home, the celebration was less subdued. Watch parties exploded all over the city. When the announcement came, the people gathered at Trifecta Productions started shrieking, crying, jumping up and down, and high-fiving. Others watching in bars and restaurants along 4th Avenue flooded into the street like the Thundering Herd had just won a national title. The owner of 21 at the Frederick, a fine dining establishment in the historic downtown Frederick Hotel, passed out flutes of champagne.
The oversized check still sits on an easel outside Williams’ office at city hall. The money, meanwhile, waits in an account at the Foundation for the Tri-State, to be spent on anything needed to further the revitalization plan.
The city hopes to make the $3 million last at least three years. But Williams is certain the momentum the competition created will last much longer. “The strength of our program is it’s so community-based. We have such a diversity of individuals in the community, we can continue to drive it.”
Now, Williams hopes to take the movement beyond the city limits. In July, he announced his candidacy for Congress. “The 3rd Congressional District is about the size of a decent-sized city, albeit spread out over 18 counties. If we could do it in Huntington, we could show the way for the rest of Appalachia,” he says.
Make no little plans.