HUNTINGTON - From friendlier storefronts that no longer feature boarded-up windows, to new locations to dine and shop, downtown Huntington has transformed into a vibrant area that caters not only to night life, but also to everyday life.
While progress is being made throughout the downtown streets, much of that is being focused on a strip in 3rd Avenue located across from Pullman Square.
"I think people are surprised when they see what's being developed," said David Lieving, Huntington Area Development Council (HADCO) president and CEO. "I hear comments like that all the time from people that graduated from Marshall when they return for a game of other event they can't believe how great downtown Huntington looks. It's a real gem and we just need to keep expanding on that."
In the last year, 3rd Avenue has welcomed in a specialty doughnut shop, real-life escape rooms and numerous other businesses that fill the space above these more trafficked street-level spots.
While each developer is looking near and far to fill their empty spaces, Matt Stickler, property manager at Touma Real Estate Holdings, said it's less of a competition in Huntington and more of a camraderie.
"Everybody that's involved in Huntington realizes that we do need to work together a rising tide raises all ships," he said
800 block of 3rd Avenue development
After purchasing four buildings in the 800 block of 3rd Avenue in downtown Huntington nearly two years ago, Capital Venture Corp. partners Jim Weiler and Phil Nelson have transformed a once-vacant street corner into one of the downtown area's liveliest blocks.
In the building at 801 3rd Ave., Weiler said every tenant is either a new business of an expansion of a local business.
Taking up shop on the first floor of this building is Peace, Love and Little Donuts of Huntington; Hwy 55 Burgers, Shakes & Fries; Charlie Graingers, a specialty hot dog restaurant; and The Lost: Huntington Escape Room, a real-life escape game designed for small groups to work together as a team to escape from a locked room.
Filling out the top floors is accounting firm Hayflich CPAs on the third floor and Ohio Valley Physicians corporate headquarter and insurance company Arias Agency on the second floor.
Weiler said Arias Agency originally was located in Teays Valley, but recently decided that a move to Huntington would be beneficial for the business.
Recently filling the final empty space on the mezzanine level of the building is Linchpin Integrated Media LLC.
"It's exciting to see more of these businesses coming in," Weiler said. "I think what is really attracting them to the area is the overall positive momentum that's going on in downtown."
A few buildings down, more drastic measures are being taken in order to bring new life back to this historic block.
In order to make room for pedestrian passageway, the building next to Taste of Asia, most recently home to a bar called Rum Runners, was brought to the ground.
Weiler said the move not only makes a convenient passage way from 4th Avenue to 3rd Avenue, but also allows developers to add some needed natural light into the floors above Taste of Asia.
He said crews are currently in the process of cutting out holes for 68 windows on the north, west and south walls of the second, third and fourth floors.
"This will completely transform the look of the building," Weiler said.
While this building is still in the middle of renovations, Weiler said the top two floors already have a tenant, the law firm of Steptoe & Johnson, which currently has its office in the Chase building at 1000 5th Ave.
Originally, the plan was to convert these floors into luxury apartments, but with the signing of Steptoe & Johnson, Weiler the remaining open space of 9,000 square feet on the second floor will also be converted into office space.
The final step in completing this nearly $7 million redevelopment of the block will be the addition of an open space market and upgrades to the parking lot located behind the properties.
The large middle building left standing will be the site for this new open market, which Weiler said will have the same feel as Capitol Market in Charleston.
Weiler said the contract to get the ball rolling on this final piece was just awarded to a contractor and he hopes to see it complete in the next six months.
"The passageway, the market and the parking lot will be the icing on the cake," he said.
900 block of 3rd Avenue development
Mirrored on the opposite end of the street is a similar redevelopment project, one that has been more than two decades in the making and is being led by Dr. Joseph Touma, who owns the majority of properties in the 900 block of 3rd Avenue across from Pullman Square.
Stickler said Touma started nearly 25 years ago with the building located at the corner of 3rd Avenue and 10th Street that now houses Sprint.
Within a year, Stickler said the building was completely renovated and leased.
After successfully renovated and leasing an entire building, Stickler said Touma was able to repeat the process several more times down the block.
"Back 25 years ago, downtown Huntington was really dying," Stickler said. "Most of the buildings were boarded up. On this particular block, across the street there were buildings like this that were torn down during the Urban Renewal movement but we believed that there was potential for Huntington to come back."
Stickler said they are currently working on two properties located next to Marshall University's Visual Arts Center that were once part of the historic Anderson-Newcomb Co. but have been vacant since the '80s.
"Those two buildings sat vacant for upwards of 20 years while most of the rest of this block and the next block down were all being renovated and brought up to date," he said. "They were the last two buildings that had not been touched and it's exciting to see all the buildings on this block be brought back to life."
Stickler said renovations on the two buildings are expected to be complete in the spring or summer of this year, though some of the upstairs office space is already spoken for.
"Right now we are looking for tenants for the retails space that will complement what is already going on here," he said. "We are pretty selective in our retail spaces. You can rent a space and get a rent check but we are more concerned about building momentum among all the other retailers, drawing in more people and helping grow what we are all trying to accomplish downtown."
While the retail shops are typically what brings the majority of people downtown, Stickler said filling the upstairs office space is also vitally important.
"The street level foot traffic appeals to the retail shops but then the officer folks like to be here in the heart of downtown because it's close to not only stores and restaurants but other businesses, the courthouse, city hall and other government entities," he said. "It's just so convenient; you can walk to most of your meeting or dealings during the day. The draw is the convenience of being right here in the heart of downtown close to everything."
Stickler said the buildings, located at 935 and 937 3rd Ave., will be able to accommodate two retail stores as well as four office spaces, although they have been toying around with the idea of converting two of the four office spaces in condos.
While it's great to see these buildings be put back into productive use, Stickler said it's also important to be able to restore some of Huntington's rich history.
"We're just building on the history of what built Huntington," he said. "Recognizing the history of Huntington and honoring the past is what got us to this point. We really put a high priority on maintaining what we can of the historical influence - that was really what built this town and made this all possible."
As a boy, Stickler said he remembers when Huntington's downtown area was booming with activity and the place to go for all holiday shopping.
"As a young child I have faint memories of a number of the stores that we are working in, including the old McCrory's where Le Bistro is now," he said. "It's fun to see the history and remember some of the connection but also to really see them come back to life. I remember through the late '80s and '90s when a lot of this was vacant and boarded up and now to see it come back to life in a meaningful way where there is a lot of real activity and long-term tenants is amazing."
Matching property owners with new clients
Although Capital Venture Corp. and Touma Real Estate Holdings are able to attract businesses to their properties before renovations are even complete, one Huntington organization is also lending a hand to developers to further assist in the process.
Lieving equates HADCO to the "match.com" for property owners because it helps bring people together and facilitate conversations for those in search of properties throughout Cabell and Wayne counties.
Established in 1992, the mission of the organization is to attract new employers to the area, retain existing employers and help all employers expand their businesses.
Lieving said this mission is accomplished through a number of avenues.
For starters, Lieving said the website, www.hadco.org, lists dozens of vacant properties, office spaces and commercial/industrial buildings that are in need of tenants or owners.
At no cost to the owners, Lieving said the site is used to market these properties. For each of the properties, the website gives a small description including square feet, the year the building was built and other notable details.
Lieving said they are all about getting the word out in order to let people know what's available.
One property that Lieving said has a tremendous amount of potential is the recently vacant Mack & Dave's building at 1010 3rd Ave.
This property is 99,000 square feet, which Lieving said should be more than enough to attract commercial users or even developers looking to convert the building into office space.
Overall, Lieving said he is impressed by the progress he has seen in downtown Huntington over the last few years.
In addition to the dozens of new businesses popping up downtown, Lieving said the incorporation of Marshall University's Visual Arts Center in downtown area has helped steer even more people to the downtown area.
"Moving the Visual Arts Center downtown was a very key event because that brings hundreds and hundreds of students downtown every day," he said. "When you have that kind of traffic from the university and the general public, it becomes more of a destination for people that want to hang out, get some coffee, do some shopping, do something fun or go out to eat."
He added that more and more developers are also converting some of Huntington's old buildings into residential spaces, mentioning the West Virginia Building, The Frederick and The Lofts at the Renaissance.
Lieving said living in downtown is a fairly recent trend that is helping established renewed vibrancy to cities across the country.
"In years past, people lived in the suburbs and drove in and out of the city every day, but now I think people are seeing more values in not having to drive to things," he said. "In Huntington, downtown is walkable and safe, there's plenty of street and garage parking that isn't too expensive when you compare it with other cities around the state and the country."
In order to continue the growth being seen throughout the downtown area, Lieving said it would be to the city's benefit for developers to really lean into this downtown living trend.
"Huntington has a lot to offer and I think if we can get more people to consider living downtown, so after 5 p.m. it's not quiet and you have more people walking about and doing things," he said. "There are several available buildings that could be converted into living space, condos or apartments. I think the key will be ensure that we have some affordable options for people."