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File photo/The Herald-Dispatch The Huntington Municipal Development Authority is closer to purchasing and redeveloping the former ACF rail car plant in the Highlawn neighborhood. Redeveloping the 42-acre property could bring a boost in economic activity to the Highlawn neighborhood and beyond.

The process of bringing activity back to the former ACF Industries factory in Huntington’s Highlawn neighborhood is moving slowly, but the next steps are being taken — a positive sign for the possible rejuvenation of that part of the city.

At last week’s meeting of the Huntington Municipal Development Authority, HMDA Executive Director Cathy Burns said an architect is drafting several potential uses for the 42-acre property, which the HMDA has agreed to buy for $3.12 million. The sale could close next year pending the agency obtaining title insurance.

For decades, hundreds of workers assembled rail cars at the plant. The plant closed several years ago and has been quiet since. The property, located along the north and south sides of 3rd Avenue near 24th Street, is central to a plan to remake that area and surrounding properties into the Huntington Brownfields Innovation Zone, or H-BIZ.

Architect Sean Garrigan is working with members of the Huntington Office of Planning and Zoning to determine various parking requirements for the complex. The city’s zoning ordinances would require a certain number of parking spaces depending on what the complex is redeveloped as, such as commercial space or a medical facility.

Along with the ACF property, the board also purchased and resold 8 acres of the nearby Flint Group Pigments property, located along the north side of 5th Avenue at 24th Street. HMDA members bought the property for $750,000 and resold it to Marshall University for $468,000. The property is planned as the future site of Marshall University’s 3,500-seat ballpark, which has a March 2021 completion date.

Burns said Garrigan also will work with the Missouri-based architectural firm hired by Marshall University, AECOM, to ensure that both developments complement each other.

“They will be two separate developments, but they will have some connectivity,” Burns said. “There is discussion currently taking place between our architect and their architect so we can do our proposed plan of design, so that it complements what is being designed there.”

HMDA also needs a quitclaim deed for several CSX railroad track spurs located on the property. The deed will affirm that CSX has no rights to those spurs, Burns said.

Moving ahead is good news.

Caution and hope: Government agencies’ record in real estate development shows things don’t always work out as promised. KineticPark was supposed to be filled with technology-oriented businesses; it wasn’t. On the other hand, the Huntington Industrial Center has succeeded in bringing activity to the former Owens-Illinois glass bottle factory in the West End.

Takeaway: Redeveloping the ACF property can be a big win for the city if it’s done right. Will it provide the number of jobs ACF did at its height? That’s doubtful. But it can be a property that restores economic vitality to a neighborhood that needs it. Success breeds success, and business activity will bring other investment into the area between Marshall and the Guyandotte River, and possibly beyond.

Caution: As Marshall builds its baseball stadium and if the city does redevelop the ACF property, Highlawn residents and people who travel through that area frequently will expect something to be done about storm drainage so 5th and 3rd avenues don’t flood after every summer rain. Redeveloping the area provides an opportunity to deal with infrastructure problems that have plagued Highlawn for decades.

If the redevelopment succeeds, the site will shed its present identity of being a former ACF plant and will have a new, forward-looking one, such as what happened when people forgot about the Superblock after Pullman Square was built.

This project will take years and will require a great deal of patience, but progress is being made, and that’s good.

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