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Highlawn area development good for the city

October 8, 2018

Huntington’s Highlawn neighborhood once was a manufacturing area that provided thousands of blue-collar jobs. Large factories produced railroad cars and chemicals. Smaller ones made other products.

Trains delivered thousands of tons of coal each month to be loaded onto barges for delivery to distant points. The Veterans Memorial Field House was the home of Marshall University basketball and drew all sorts of other events. Thousands of children and teenagers received educations at Enslow Junior High School and Huntington East High School.

But time moves on, and neighborhoods change. The big factories are shells of what they once were, the Field House has been replaced by a soccer stadium and the junior high and high schools are closed. There are some businesses that continue operating mostly out of public sight, and St. Mary’s Medical Center has expanded into a true regional health care center.

Still, Highlawn — the area between Marshall University and St. Mary’s — could use an infusion of development. Mayor Steve Williams and the Huntington Municipal Development Authority are working on it.

The HMDA has an option to buy the former Ingram Barge Co. rail-to-river dock. That option expires in six months. That site, running from 25th Street to 27th Street, has been eyed to build a Polymer Tech Center since Rubberlite Inc., a polymer conversion company based in Highlawn, expressed interest in building an advanced research and development center.

More recently, HMDA has agreed to purchase parking and warehouse space north of 5th Avenue from the Flint Group. That site is about eight acres. It does not include the former production facilities on the 12 acres south of 5th Avenue, between the street and the railroad tracks, said Tom Bell, HMDA executive director.

Terms of the sale have been negotiated and a deposit has been made. Details of the final agreement are being worked out, Bell said.

Williams has some pretty big plans for what he calls the Huntington Innovation Zone.

“We expect somewhere between 5th Avenue and the river that we will have a baseball stadium built. I expect it will have a hotel built. I expect to see commercial and retail built,” Williams told The Herald-Dispatch reporter Travis Crum recently. “I also expect research and development, and that it could entail biomedical engineering.”

Williams says the completion of this plan would be a “game changer” for the city, reclaiming a neglected neighborhood situated in a prime location with river access and close proximity to Marshall University.

Huntington will be an example to “cities throughout Appalachia for how you can turn your economy around from a coal-dependent economy to one that will still benefit from (one of) the largest inland water port(s) in the nation,” the mayor said.

Over the years, Huntington residents have seen many big plans that promised to be “game changers.” Some have succeeded. Pullman Square and Joan C. Edwards Stadium are two that come to mind. They have also seen some fail.

Highlawn could use a successful game changer. The whole city could use the infusion of jobs that would come with the Huntington Innovation Zone. The entire region would benefit from the intellectual capital that would be attracted to such a place.

Given Huntington’s economic history of the past 40 years, it’s easy to be pessimistic about Williams’ plan. Perhaps some community optimism would help bring that plan to fruition.

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