Dave Peyton: Re-inventing Huntington no easy task

September 5, 2018

A few months ago the Roanoke (Virginia) Times asked the question: Now that coal is no longer king, especially in western Virginia, is there any reason for Roanoke to exist?

That question sent shivers down my arthritic spine as I realized the same question could be asked of Huntington.

Not about coal necessarily. Huntington was founded in the late 19th Century by a businessman named Collis P. Huntington who determined it would be the western terminus for his railroad and a place where his engines and cars would be repaired.

It was a railroad town at a time the railroads were the major transportation links. That made Huntington important to America and to itself. It kept the city thriving.

Add to that the fact that Huntington became a center for coal brokerage and that hardened its reason for being here.

Today, the railroad business has all but left Huntington. Coal has been deposed as king as it has in Roanoke.

It’s complicated but clear that Huntington’ raison d’tre has disappeared.

Meanwhile, Huntington Mayor Steve Williams and his sidekicks are trying their best to re-invent the city. Re-invent it against all odds.

The mayor seems to be fighting a losing battle. The city is losing the drug war despite police set on winning.

The city knows that to re-invigorate itself, it must have an educated population in a state that has the lowest number of college graduates in America.

I’ve been discussing these problems with thinkers, not dreamers, in emails. I pointed out that the city has been on the edge of bankruptcy for years and that it is a dangerous place to be.

To make matters worse, the citizens of Huntington revolt every time someone suggests additional taxation to help the city out.

They immediately bring up the specter of someone - they never say who - stealing money from the city’s fiscal coffers. Proof is non-existent.

I’ve got news. There is no money to steal.

Thousands are being spent on demolishing old houses and buildings. It looks good but for each old house demolished, a dozen take it’s place. It’s the sign of a town trying, but failing, to renew itself.

But, you say, Huntington is known as a regional health center and a center for higher education.

Neither of these are tax producers and both remain virtually city-tax free in a city starving for taxes.

The irony of ironies.

I admire the city administration for doing what it can under the circumstances. It seems the city celebrates a food of some kind every weekend: hot dogs, spaghetti, chili, homegrown beer. And then there is a free concert every Thursday at Pullman Square. Cold weather will soon shut that down.

But with its paltry budget, the city is doing the best it can. And if I had the opportunity to make suggestions about how to change things, I couldn’t. I have none.

Is the death of a city a natural inevitable thing? When the reason a city is born is gone, can the city find a new reason to exist?

Those, and many more, are questions to which I have no answers. But, as a person who has lived within two miles of the city’s limits for 70 years, I hope the mayor and his people find a way.

Dave Peyton is on Facebook. His email address is davepeyton@comcast.net.

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