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Mayor Williams Excited About Huntington's Economic Foundation
Huntington Mayor Steve Williams beamed after the opening conference --- he acknowledged that the city has already laid the ground work in many aspects for attracting and retaining residents. When John Robert ,senior policy advisor and former Mayor of Meridian , Mississippi, the comparisons were stunning. Instead of a nucleus around a century old railway station, Huntington developed Pullman Square. Meridian pulled redevelopment of an opera house and a department store in conjunction with Mississippi State University; Huntington has coordinated the ongoing Keith Albee Performing Arts Center restoration and the soon to open downtown Arts Center around a vaudeville theater and a department store. Similarities to the downtown revival plans for the two cities are endless.
Williams has often spoke of attracting the new generation of "creative class" workers to Huntington, which represent the Millennials (those entering the work force in the 21st Century). Smart Growth America research confirms that the newest workers generally choose their place they want to live first, then, determine where can I find work.
Solidifying the importance of amenities such as arts and entertainment, Christopher Zimmerman, Vice President for Economic Development, and Director of the Governors’ Institute on Community Design, mentioned how "buying tickets" to a show trickles down to other businesses, such as restaurants, retail, and hotels. "When you have this kind of visual arts and performing arts atmosphere, it draws a lot of other folks who decide that's the place they want to live."
Zimmerman acknowledged that "it's expensive to fix up a theatre" but "that investment may be small compared to the other investments" that generate from the events held at the venue. "If the theatre is successful, it is surrounded by other buildings. They are more likely to be renovated, to get higher rents, and pay more taxes. These are (potential) catalysts that generate a lot of value for a community." As an illustration, they noted that one $1.3 million dollar historic investment has resulted in $135 million dollars and new life for the structure and others around it.
Roberts indicated that Meridian restored both the opera house and the Temple Theatre, which is a vaudeville venue similar to the Keith Albee. "It is still used for entertainment on a regional scale," Roberts said of the Temple, which seats about 1,800.
However, the concept of revitalizing large, former one screen performance venues "pays off big time," Roberts said, pointing his finger particularly at Flushing, N.Y. where the RKO Keith's has been left to deteriorate. "This is something you have that others don't have," the former Mississippi mayor said. "You inherit what other folks would die for. How do you use them? You must maximize the use of them. They are treasures. Those things make you different from any city in West Virginia , New York, or Mississippi.
Huntington's Keith had "angels" looking after it --- i.e. the Hyman family, but the RKO Keith's did not. Many in Flushing claim there's nothing left to restore or the interior has deteriorated beyond repair.
"The opera house (in Meridian ) was full of pigeons. It was deserted when we took it over," Roberts said, noting that now its in use almost nightly from September to May as part of an adjacent conference center.
Interestingly, Roberts said that Mississippi produces more artistic geniuses than any state in the union. He then named the icons. "You'd be surprised at the number of performers at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York that come from Mississippi."
Huntington/Ashland has a litany of successes in or related to Country music as demonstrated by U.S. 23 known as the country music highway.
Encouraging new "artists" is an expensive proposition too. The arts do not normally pay high bucks, especially those starting out in a creative endeavor. How do you help those just learning their craft or have just received a degree? Zimmerman mentioned providing artists space (at minimal cost) in old school houses , old public buildings, or former industrial facilities, as well as tax incentives and grants to artists themselves.
He added that such strategies work best when the artistic concepts are part of the communities overall strategy, such as where the community already has assets, such as a university. "It's more likely to pay off if it's an element of a strategy. Then it can look like a small investment, and small little things can make a big difference."
For instance, "Older buildings can be wonderful places for visual arts work. Sculptors need a lot of space, light and where no body cares if they make lots of noise. Sometimes that's a low cost use of space otherwise not used," he explained.
Roberts added the creative artists of the state are important to "our own people [who] must recognize what's special and different about Huntington from other cities, then, play to that strength."
An intriguing array of historic structures appeals to the creative class.
"Young professionals are looking for authentic places. They do not want Disney does downtown. They want to come to a place that knows who it is, knows where it's going, and they see a place for them within that vision," Roberts said.
Instead of designating a long abandoned location as a potential parking lot, "If it still has the majesty about it (that can be preserved) , invest in that. Let it be special once again. Young people and baby boomers want to come and walk in those kind of places.."
Roberts said three keys to city growth going forward are: Who you are in the past, Who are you now, and who do you aspire to be.
Listening to the Smart Growth presentation which emphasized visions ten , twenty or thirty years in the future, Mayor Williams inquired how the city should project the future growth of education (Marshall University) and meds (the hospitals) , which have been a catalyst for the post-industrial Huntington.
Roberts explained that "education" is a pillar, it's the last to abandon a city. Zimmerman emphasized "leveraging the university" to "bring [portions of the city] together."
Commenting on the downtown's integration with Marshall, Roberts said, "You have several blocks ready to pop."
And, to directly answer the Mayor's question, they both project that both "meds and eds" will have "value" in the future.