When city leaders in Huntington, W.Va., first learned about the “America’s Best Community” competition, they thought it would provide them with the perfect opportunity to envision a stronger future for their constituents and to create the strategy that would turn that vision into a reality. They did not expect to walk away with the title when the winner was announced last April and a $3 million prize for first place.
But that’s exactly what happened.
“We knew there would be some stiff competition, especially from other cities within our own region so we didn’t know if we would win, but we saw it as a prime opportunity to create a community-wide revitalization plan that could hopefully serve as a catalyst for other rural municipalities,” said Bryan Chambers, communications director for the city of Huntington. “In the end, I think that’s what helped us stand out.”
Sponsored by Frontier Communications, Dish, CoBank and The Weather Channel, America’s Best Community is a nationwide competition designed for smaller municipalities — populations of 9,500-80,000 — in the Frontier Communications service area to showcase why they are a cut above the rest over a three-year period of time. While 350 cities in 27 states originally applied to compete, they were quickly paired down to 50 quarter finalists who were best able to articulate the opportunities and challenges facing their community, a desire to implement change, detail current initiatives and outlines for future economic development and provide a clear vision for their community’s future and prospects for achieving their revitalization goal.
Chambers said that’s when the competition intensified. During the quarterfinal round, the municipalities were expected to complete a community revitalization plan focused on economic development, obtain $15,000 in matching funds from the community, present a six-month budget outline for cash award and community matching funds and create a budget proposal of $100,000 for a possible 11-month implementation of their community revitalization plan.
“At that stage, a lot of the quarterfinalists might receive one check from a large corporate entity, but what was really neat is that we received donations from dozens of contributors, including everyday citizens and the corporate sector as well,” he said. “Instead of raising $15,000, we managed to raise $27,000 so we really went above the minimum of what we were supposed to do.”
Huntington’s revitalization plan, or the Huntington Innovation Project, is designed to transform neighborhoods and blighted areas that have been affected by the decline in manufacturing and coal industries into hip hubs for innovative manufacturing, advancement training and healthy community improvements that will all be connected via high-speed broadband. The three most impacted areas in Huntington include the West End, Fairfield and Highlawn.
“Our West End has an old textile factory that has been closed for a while now, but we are using that space to retrain manufacturers and coal miners for the jobs of the 21st century. There is also a plan to transform vacant properties, continue with our healthy foods initiative through the Central City Farmer’s Market and our main street renewal along 14th Street West,” Chambers said. “We are really trying to support local farmers and rekindle the entrepreneurial spirit within the community, and this is a great opportunity to do that.”
In Fairfield, Huntington plans an expansion of a healthy innovation corridor that will spring from its regional medical anchors — Cabell Huntington Hospital, St. Mary’s Medical Center, Robert C. Byrd Center for Rural Health and the Marshall University Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine.
In Highlawn, Huntington has received several EPA grants that will help study and redevelop “brownfield” properties that have been negatively impacted by environmental hazards and implement a reuse plan that will include research and development facilities, retail stores, recreational trails and riverfront development as well as stormwater improvements.
Chambers said that all three initiatives will be connected by Huntington’s “Gigabit City” initiative, which will deploy high-speed internet capabilities that will create future job opportunities, enhance sustainability and serve as a gateway to the revitalizing of the Tri-State and Appalachian region.
“Make no mistake, some of the wheels for these initiatives were already in motion before the competition, but this allowed us to bring it all together and look at how the whole could benefit from the individual parts,” Chambers said. “What the competition did was to serve as a catalyst to motivate the whole community to get involved.”
He said the prize money will be overseen by a financial agent in a special account so that it does not fall into the city’s general fund, never to be seen again. He knows the community that got behind these initiatives wants to see them come to fruition and he knows transparency is a big part of that.
“It was really exciting to be part of such an exciting opportunity that encouraged communities to create their revitalization plans and take the steps necessary to start securing funding for them.
“In a competition like this, there are no losers,” he said. “Everyone was a winner.”