Editorial: Old Main Corridor progress prompts more work
The Old Main Corridor project, in concept at least, has been around for about a dozen years. The basic idea was to improve 4th Avenue between the Marshall University campus and the central business district -- two important elements of Huntington that are near each other yet could be better linked to the advantage of both.
The concept made sense back in 2001 when it was first proposed, and it still makes sense today. Improve 4th Avenue extending west from Hal Greer Boulevard, along which stands the campus landmark of the Old Main building, with new pavement, new sidewalks, new street lamps, more attractive landscaping and bicycle lanes. In short, make it a more attractive strip in downtown, both for businesses and the people who live, work and study in the area.
But getting from conception to realization was met with several challenges. Tight city government budgets forced a wait of several years before construction work began and meant that improvements would have to be done a couple of blocks at a time. Once it did start, problems arose in the construction work, further slowing progress.
Now, however, the achievement of one milestone -- completing the actual physical improvements -- may be in sight. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin last week announced the city would receive a $500,000 Transportation Enhancement grant. That money will be used to finish off the final two-block section of 4th Avenue, between 10th and 12th streets, in 2014. The segment between 12th and 13th streets will be completed this year, thanks to a grant received earlier. As noted by Charles Holley, the city's director of development and planning, the work in the next two years should mean a "completed corridor" from 8th Street to Hal Greer Boulevard.
The result will be an enhanced downtown area, to go along with other improvements made in the downtown in recent years, including Pullman Square and 9th Street. Already, there has been a response. Holley said an independent evaluation done last year of foot traffic on 4th Avenue showed a significant increase from an assessment done in 2008, when many people said they avoided the area.
But the work to make 4th Avenue more vibrant is far from finished. Completion of the physical work on 4th Avenue simply means that officials concerned with downtown development have a new building block.
That was pointed out by an economic development transition team put together by Steve Williams after he won election as Huntington mayor in November. That committee acknowledged the progress on "bricks and mortar" projects such as the Old Main Corridor. But they also noted that aggressive follow-up is needed to capitalize on the improvements. "I guess what we're looking for now is the plan to take things to the next level," said Cathy Burns, a longtime economic development official who is chairwoman of the committee. "Ultimately, the goal is to increase the tax base and property values."
That means the city will need to take steps to encourage investment by property owners and potential businesses to help fill the numerous empty spots that remain along 4th Avenue. Certainly, other aspects of the transition team's suggestions also could play a role, such as deploying high-speed broadband connectivity and streamlining the city's business licensing and permit process.
The city should be credited for its persistence in seeing the Old Main Corridor project through to this point, but officials should also develop an aggressive game plan to make the investment pay off further after the aesthetic improvements are done.