Bobby Nelson left his positive mark on the city

March 19, 2019
Former Huntington Mayor Bobby Nelson

One statement that has been repeated often since Friday is, “Bobby Nelson loved Huntington.” And it’s true. Huntington’s first mayor under its current strong mayor form of government was the city’s biggest booster during his eight years in office, and the impact of those eight years is still being felt.

Huntington was a different city when Nelson, who died last week at the age of 84, was elected in 1985. Although Marshall University and the hospitals were major players in the local economy then as they are now, the business of Huntington was business. Yet the city’s economy was transitioning away from its former roots. Several of the major manufacturers that had been the anchors of the local economy, such as Owens-Illinois and ACF, were hanging on to life, but their days were numbered. The Huntington Mall had been open less than five years, but its detrimental impact on Huntington retailers was already being felt. Meanwhile, the nine-acre Superblock downtown sat empty year after year.

City government itself was dominated by a micromanaging city council that hired a city manager to handle the day-today operations of government.

It was in this environment that the voters of Huntington decided they needed an executive officer who could take charge and make decisions. They wanted someone with a vision of what Huntington could be and who could take the steps necessary to bring that vision to reality.

Into that leadership void stepped Bobby Nelson. Nelson had spent 19 years in the West Virginia Legislature, and he had learned the arts of politics and governance from Ken Hechler, the longtime congressman, author and professor.

Once elected mayor, Nelson hit the ground running with big ideas and the determination to bring them to pass.

Some of his ideas worked. Some didn’t. Some things looked like failures, such as bringing minor league baseball to the city, but they provided the template of what could work in the future. He fought for change — not for the sake of change, but change to make Huntington a better place to live and to do business.

Huntington’s charter allows mayors to be elected to three consecutive terms, but none have won their third election. Voters tend to think two terms in office are enough. Nelson tried for a third term, but he didn’t get past the Democratic Party primary.

In an interview before he left office at the end of 1993, Nelson acknowledged that he could be a difficult person to work for.

“I get very caught up in what I’m doing. I like to believe people changed the government here and elected a person like me because they wanted something to happen, wanted somebody who could make a decision and could do something,” he said.

It’s been nearly 34 years since Nelson was elected mayor. Most of his contemporaries in city government have either retired from public service or have passed away. Huntington itself is a different city in many respects. Marshall and the hospitals now dominate the economy as industry and much commerce have relocated elsewhere. The leadership of city government has a different set of economic and social problems to deal with.

In the final judgment, Bobby Nelson was what Huntington needed in that time. The city and the region it anchors are better for his time in the Legislature and in City Hall.