Huntington a gateway of opportunity for Appalachia
I have great respect for Dave Peyton and have enjoyed his writing for many years. But I must respond to his Sept. 5 article “Re-Inventing Huntington No Easy Task.” As someone working to develop this city and all of central Appalachia toward its full potential, I actually don’t take personal offense to the article. I did at first, but the more I read and re-read, the more I realized this is a sincere man who is truly concerned about the future of his city and is not seeing a viable path forward.
It’s a thought-provoking piece; Mr. Peyton asks, if a “town trying, but failing, to renew itself,” can “find a new reason to exist?” If you, like me, didn’t know we needed to be looking for a reason to exist, Mr. Peyton seems to think the decline of coal (and thus railway industry) creates just such a need.
Of course, for decades West Virginians have been told we can only be one thing. It’s dangerous for Mr. Peyton to contribute to such a limiting message. The challenges we face are very real, but they can be overcome. They are being overcome. The only thing that can stop the majority of us who believe in this place and its future is cynicism (which creates apathy).
Part of our economic weakness has been tied to our inability to diversify our economy. Our more vibrant future will be many things, not just one thing. So, wishing for that one thing to come back is a waste of precious time. So too is waiting for some other one big thing to come along.
Instead, I encourage Mr. Peyton and other cynics to spend their time supporting and investing in the many, many entrepreneurs I get inspired by every day. In the last six months alone, our community has had a solar company open an office here, a recycling t-shirt manufacturer with an MLB license move to town and a modern retail center come to life in formally vacant space.
Mr. Peyton argues that recent successes at Marshall University or in the healthcare industry don’t count because they don’t contribute to the tax base. Well, first that’s not completely accurate. But the bigger point to make is that the modern economy isn’t like the old economy. And the old ways are crumbling fast. Modern economies are built around quality of life, authenticity of place and cultivation of opportunity. Thus, our raison d’etre: to be an inspiring hub of opportunity for central Appalachia, a diversity of opportunity for many different kinds of people.
In growing an entrepreneurial movement, the best news is we don’t really have to reinvent ourselves, as Mr. Peyton suggests. Huntington is a gateway of opportunity for all of Appalachia. And in creating opportunities here we simply need to keep getting back to what we do best: fixing, making, building, growing. We are talented, resilient, creative people. Heritage Farm is a beautiful reminder of that. The decline of coal, difficult as it has made life for so many, can be an opportunity to realize our full potential and become aware that we’re more than just one thing. Space has been made for new growth.
I had the recent honor of giving the convocation address for Marshall’s incoming freshman class. It was a day filled with hope, to feel the positive energy of these young people choosing Huntington as their community. I told them this was a community they could believe in, one they should be excited to be part of. I meant every word.
Brandon Dennison is executive director of Coalfield Development Corporation.