Housing, safety issues emphasized
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is one of a series of articles about issues in the Huntington mayoral election. Today's focus: Neighborhood development.
HUNTINGTON -- Both major-party candidates for Huntington mayor agree that the city's population is in a position to grow, but their vision for capitalizing on that potential varies slightly.
The incumbent, Republican Kim Wolfe, cites a plummeting crime rate and advancements in tearing down dilapidated housing during his first four years in office. If re-elected, those efforts will continue while the city looks to promote itself more, he said.
The Democratic challenger, Councilman Steve Williams, also said public safety and improving the housing stock are critical components of making Huntington more attractive. But those efforts won't have as much meaning if the city can't find a way to foster economic development in several key areas of the city, he says.
Whoever wins the Nov. 6 mayoral election will be tasked with making the city an attractive place to live and work with depleted resources fueled by decades of population loss. The city's population, which was at an all-time high of 86,000 in 1950, declined for the sixth consecutive decennial Census in 2010. Huntington's population decreased by 4.5 percent from 51,475 in 2000 to 49,138 in 2010, although city officials point to annual Census estimates that have shown small population gains since 2009. That was the first time the city saw year-to-year population growth since 1993.
Wolfe cites housing, fighting crime as key to growth
Wolfe touts his record of curbing crime and making progress in tearing down and acquiring dilapidated properties for redevelopment purposes during the past four years. He says both measures fulfill a campaign promise four years ago of making the city safer and cleaner.
Huntington's violent crime and property crime rates fell significantly between 2007 and 2010, according to the most recent data compiled by the FBI. The Huntington Police Department's Uniform Crime Report for 2010 indicated the lowest rates recorded for violent crime and property crime during the past 27 years. The violent crime rate alone fell more than 38 percent between 2007 and 2010.
Wolfe also says 130 dilapidated structures have been demolished during his four years in office. That includes several structures that were razed because of a $100,000 anonymous donation from a citizen in 2009 and 52 properties that are being torn down by the West Virginia National Guard and state Division of Highways. Before Wolfe took office, the city struggled to demolish 10 condemned properties per year.
"The most important thing to remember is that the community bought into this, whereas they have been hesitant in the past," Wolfe said. "You've seen relations get better between law enforcement and the citizens because we've done new things like the Weed and Seed Program and the Drug Market Intervention Program where both sides are working together. That's the kind of work that brings neighborhoods back."
Wolfe said the one thing he hasn't done well in his first four years in office is promote the city's successes. That will change if he's re-elected, he said.
"Crime is down, we've got a grip on dilapidated housing, we've paved streets every year and we've added jobs in the city with Amazon and DirecTV," Wolfe said. "We need to do a better job of telling these success stories. We need a public information office where we can do that."
Recreational opportunities such as the Paul Ambrose Trail for Health and planned improvements for Harris Riverfront Park also must be promoted in an effort to keep more Marshall University students in Huntington after they graduate, Wolfe said.
"Why will they stay here? Affordable housing and recreational opportunities," he said. "We have tremendous potential here."
Williams explains vision for attracting residents
Williams said one of his long-term goals as mayor is to make Huntington the most populous city in West Virginia by the 2020 Census.
To increase population and end the trend of residents moving to eastern Cabell County or into Lawrence County, Ohio, Huntington must update its housing stock, Williams said.
"One of the main problems you hear about in Huntington is that the housing stock is outdated and there's not enough available property to build new housing," Williams said.
He believes that problem is being addressed with the Huntington Urban Renewal Authority's land bank program, which takes ownership of dilapidated properties and vacant lots and sells them to residential developers with the agreement that the property will be returned to productive use.
Doing so forces the city to work with neighborhood associations to create more green space in residential areas, thus alleviating storm water concerns and developing recreational opportunities, Williams said. It also requires the city to revamp and streamline its code enforcement procedures, he said.
"The city can't be encouraging development and not be a partner in the development process through effective code enforcement and inspections programs," Williams said. "I've spoken to a few of the code enforcement officers and inspectors and they can identify cost-effective ways to meet code requirements."
On a larger scale, residents also have to feel confident that the city can offer adequate public safety, Williams said. City officials can easily point to reductions in crime rates, but making residents feel safe goes beyond statistics, Williams said. It involves community policing like the measures that have been taken in Fairfield West with the Weed and Seed program, he said.
"It can't just be all about drug and prostitution arrests," he said. "Neighborhoods have to look and feel safe as well."
If elected, Williams said he would also use his economic development background to "marry neighborhood development and commercial development."
"I look at the city now and I see four development zones that we should be targeting," Williams said. "We have what I call the Hal Greer Boulevard corridor, Central City and West End, the downtown and the ACF Industries site in Highlawn."
Williams says all of the proposed development zones would benefit if the city created tax-increment financing districts for each one.
Tax-increment financing districts allow developers to capture increases in property tax and sales tax revenues brought about by a redevelopment project and use the revenues for infrastructure or other improvements in the designated area. Such districts, or TIFs as they are commonly called, already exist in parts of downtown Huntington and at KineticPark, the city's long-planned business park.
"If we can create TIF districts in those areas and encourage redevelopment, struggling neighborhoods will begin to flourish again," Williams said. "All you have to do is look back through the years and see how many of Huntington's neighborhoods grew up as a result of industry and economic development."