Six years ago, Huntington, West Virginia, was already struggling to overcome decades of decline due to its waning coal and manufacturing industries when a spate of overdoses over a two-day period rocked the city and prompted city, business and community leaders to sound an alarm. They quickly began collaborating on a plan to move the city forward.
Today, their efforts are paying off. The city is experiencing a rebound in employment and residency that, with the aid of federal funding, will help drive sustainable growth.
“There’s a lot of excitement about what is to come, based on a few things — a solid plan for development and a strong partnership between the mayor, the president of the region’s major hospital system and the new president of Marshall University,” said Andy Bauer, the Richmond Fed’s regional executive for Maryland, Washington, D.C., and West Virginia. He visited the city August 29–30 with Richmond Fed President Tom Barkin and Community Development Manager Peter M. Dolkart as part of the Bank’s Community Conversations initiative.
Through this program, Richmond Fed leaders focus on a particular region and meet with small groups of stakeholders to learn about the local economy, the well-being of the communities in that region, and the opportunities and issues these towns and cities face. The Richmond Fed also explores ways to collaborate that may benefit these communities, including sharing insights gained from research and best practices learned from other communities in the Fifth District.
During their late August visit to Huntington, Bauer and Barkin met with business and community leaders who have forged key partnerships to create a new narrative for Huntington, including Mayor Stephen Williams, Marshall University President Brad Smith and Dr. Kevin Yingling, CEO of Mountain Health Network. The efforts of these leaders and others have brought fresh optimism to the city.
In 2017, Williams spearheaded a revitalization plan that won a national competition, bringing millions of dollars to the city to fund development. More recently, the city and Marshall University joined the ACT Now Coalition, which was one of 21 organizations selected as winners of the U.S. Economic Development Agency’s Build Back Better Regional Challenge — a competition that received more than 500 proposals. This federal program awards recipients for innovative and viable solutions to redevelop and re-energize small towns and rural communities.
“The shift away from coal toward renewable energy has been quite remarkable,” Bauer said. “Huntington is embracing solar and other technology in order to build a sustainable economy for the region. The city’s population is close to half of what it was at its peak; but the investment to date, its development plan — the Huntington Innovation Project — and future infrastructure projects have created a sense of excitement.”
Bauer also noted conversations with Yingling and others about the city’s efforts to improve health outcomes for residents, in particular on issues related to mental health and substance abuse.
A roundtable discussion with local business leaders revealed that like many rural communities across the Fifth District, employers in Huntington are struggling to combat supply chain issues and to find and keep workers.
Even so, the city’s robust economic development strategy is luring industries, including a new steel company that will open up a plant north of the city and hire about 800 people when completed, Bauer said.
Dolkart and Barkin also met with the community development organization that led the winning coalition for the Build Back Better Regional Challenge. The group’s work focuses on strengthening social enterprises, workforce development and rebuilding communities, with a goal of arming residents with employable skills while helping them gain resilience against life’s challenges.
“One of our takeaways was something they said in our meeting: ‘You can’t stabilize someone’s work life until you stabilize their personal life,’” Bauer said. “Another takeaway from the visit is something that we have seen in other communities that are having success: Leadership matters, cooperation matters, and because this exists in Huntington, there’s a lot of positive momentum. Things are moving in the right direction.”