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Editorial: City transition team stresses economic development

Dec. 29, 2012 @ 11:01 PM

When Steve Williams takes office as Huntington's new mayor this week, he will have a very comprehensive "to do" list.

After winning the election in November, the mayor-elect put together a transition team of community leaders to help him identify key issues facing the city and objectives for the new administration. Members of the team were assigned to look at four topic areas -- economic development, finance, public works and public safety -- with the over-arching goal of making Huntington an "exceptional city," as Williams pledged during the campaign.

In every area, the volunteers provided insight into the city's challenges and fresh ideas that could make things better. The suggestions range from the very specific to the very broad, and many have merit.

The group did not "sugar-coat" the financial outlook for the years ahead. The city's finances have been tight and will be tight. Pension payments in the $10 million range leave little wiggle room in a $40 million budget, and the city has pressing worker's compensation obligations, too.

The city also has long-term infrastructure needs, including upgrading an aging sewer and storm-water system, that will require new funding sources and tough decisions. Improved collections of existing fees and taxes and bringing new business into the city will be critical, the reports say.

So, it is encouraging that economic development in the city received in-depth attention. In addition to population losses over the past 50 years, Huntington also has lost business after business. The most recent economic census showed that retail sales in the city dropped by 25 percent between 1997 and 2002.

But over the past 10 years, downtown has begun a slow comeback, sparked by the Pullman Square project. The transition team came up with a long list of action steps to help build on that momentum. Among those are:

Providing high-speed Internet access and Wi-Fi service, particularly along the Old Main Corridor. Better connectivity can help attract businesses and visitors as well.

Streamlining the red tape and hassles involved in starting a business in the city. Currently, a new business must deal with multiple departments for necessary permits and licenses. Not only is that time consuming, but in some cases, businesses have jumped through many hoops only to find zoning problems or other obstacles to the startup. A "one-stop" clearinghouse and a helpful liaison position make a lot of sense.

Promoting the city's image and tourism. Huntington has a lot to offer, and the report details a number of good ideas about how to share that story with local residents and visitors.

Improving the quality of life. From housing to education to recreation, city government needs to take an active role in making Huntington a better place to live. Some of these issues are complex and daunting, but the transition team details many things that the city can do to help.

Most importantly, Williams plans to keep this dialogue going because the process of involving residents was rewarding in itself.

"People came together in a way that I don't think I have ever seen in Huntington," said retired Cabell Circuit Judge Dan O'Hanlon, who served as chairman of the team.

Tapping into that community and volunteer spirit will be a key part of reaching that "exceptional city" goal.

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