In their acclaimed 2018 book “Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America,” James and Deborah Fallows describe their four-year coast-to-coast explorations of 30 American towns and cities beginning in 2013 and concluding in 2017. They span the continent, including thriving communities, such as Bend, Oregon, Dodge City, Kansas, and Eastport, Maine.
Communities nearest Huntington include Columbus, Louisville, Pittsburgh, and Charleston. In each town, the question is how the modern American dream of diversity, economic development and individual growth is being fulfilled.
They identify key traits distinguishing those places where things really appear to work. In these days of partisan, acrimonious division, the message of “Our Towns” is one of optimism and hope.
Applying those same traits, I believe Huntington compares well:
- “You can pick out the local patriots.” The answer to “Who makes things go here?” may vary from town to town and issue to issue, but for successful towns, it is a question with an answer. Here the leadership on most issues comes from City Hall and Marshall University. The mayor and the Marshall president are joined by local business and nonprofit leaders. Names such as Touma, Reynolds, and Perry resonate with progress and commitment.
- “The phrase ‘public-private partnership’ refers to something real.” Pullman Square is a striking example and is now being joined by such projects as the redevelopment of the old ACF property and the Highlawn neighborhood, construction of a new Marshall baseball stadium, upgrading of Hal Greer Boulevard and renovation of West Huntington and the 14th Street West antique district.
- “People know the civic story.” From railroad town to river town to coal industry town and now to university town, Huntington has a rich and sometimes boisterous history. The 1970 plane crash still haunts but also inspires and unites. Our central location and natural beauty illustrate our story.
- “They have downtowns.” Although we do not have streets crowded with shoppers as 50 years ago, downtown, with the Mountain Health Arena, the Keith Albee Theatre, remodeled hotels, shops and restaurants and more redevelopment on the way, is again the place to be for the metropolitan area.
- “They are near a research university.” Marshall and its medical school are rising in national stature and impact.
- “They have, and care about, a community college.” Most encouraging are MountWest Community and Technical College and its burgeoning aviation partnership with Marshall.
- “They have distinctive, innovative schools.” Huntington and Cabell County have good public schools striving to be better, with substantial community support, as reflected in the recent approval of the school bond referendum.
- “They make themselves open.” We need to do better in this regard. Other towns work harder and more deliberately to diversify their populations, to assimilate refugees, to attract talented and ambitious residents seeking a better life beyond the congestion and pace of large urban areas.
- “They have big plans.” Our leaders have those big plans, as reflected in the public-private partnerships outlined above. We have the optimum size, the resources and the talent to fulfill them. Do we have the will?