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Small Town Repairs Itself with the Help of Prayer

Transformation in Huntington, West Virginia, draws natives back to the fold

The passionate and social media-friendly mayor of Huntington, West Virginia, population about 48,000, did a bold and unusual thing in August of 2014.

Mayor Steve Williams implored ministers in the tri-state area of West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio to join him and city residents in a day of prayer. He wanted to seek God’s help in fighting back at drug abuse problems that had become rampant in his growing West Virginia community.

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The video he recorded went viral.

There were tears in his eyes as he delivered his plea in a video message for “the healing of our community,” which earned praise and support from around the world.

“There is a level of addiction in our city, in our region, that is taking us down. Frankly, we’re trying everything we know possible to stop it,” said the mayor, a former state legislator and city manager who returned home to lead his beloved city after years of working as an investment banker in Chicago.

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He continued softly: “The reason I am asking this is very simply — I have come to understand and experience how powerful prayer can be in my personal life and certainly what I have observed in my administration and how we are going about doing business. Prayer is so powerful. And I can’t imagine the power that would be united if every church… would take a moment of prayer for three things:

“For the recovery of those fighting substance abuse, that a healing would be placed upon them.

“Secondly, for the protection of our law enforcement officers that are our battling this scourge on a day-to-day basis.

“And thirdly, let us also pray for the drug dealers, that they can find a way from this, because what they are dong, they are preying on the weakness of our citizens.”

Since that date, the city of Huntington has seen the opening of a treatment center, the creation of a mayor’s office of drug control policy, and a Facebook page, “Prayer for Huntington,” which is aimed at keeping faith front and center in the city’s resurgence.

Drugs, while still concerning, are not the focus in Huntington, which bills itself on its website as “an exceptional city!”

Williams is a former Marshall University football player. He says that the key to his vision for change is viewing Huntington as a business and commerce player, not only by the state but the nation. And yes, even the world.

“What I’ve learned is what we have here is a so-called small town mentality, where folks are often saying we’re only a town of 50,000. But I’m focused on changing that mindset, on having people to get to thinking more like ‘the little engine that could.’ We might be small but we are competing in a global marketplace.”

FamousSmallTownsMore than 60 years ago, Huntington, a river city, was a center of steel manufacturing and river transport. As the energy sector declined in the state, the community lost its luster.

In the 80s, a mall drew traffic from a once-vibrant downtown, creating an inner-city vacuum that is now being reborn with infrastructure investments to historic buildings and a renovation of an eight-acre Superblock. (A Superblock is a a very large commercial or residential block barred to through traffic, crossed by pedestrian walks and sometimes access roads — a developed commercial space inside a city where folks can eat, shop and congregate.) The Superblock is turning into a shopping and entertainment destination called Pullman Square, a centerpiece of urban renewal.

Cathy Murphy Burns, CEO and president of the Huntington Chamber of Commerce, notes a shift is occurring as Huntington experiences a palpable resurgence. It’s earning plaudits in two national surveys as a good place to do business, including a top place for female entrepreneurs.

“It’s beneficial that we are a university town. Our health care is growing here as well. Those are two of our anchors,” she said of Huntington’s rise. “We still produce steel here and metals manufacturing. While the energy sector has taken a hit, we do provide a lot of services to that community. There is also a shift, with many people diversifying here to look at other energy markets and companies that are there now.”

Huntington, across the river from Ohio and minutes from Kentucky, retains its folksy feel. It’s a sort of happy merge between small city on the climb and closeknit nostalgia that allows neighbors to feel connected. It’s the kind of place, says the mayor, where you know your doctor, your dentist, your realtor — and likely their children. This is a comfort.

Return of the Natives
As the old guard falls away, a new generation seems to be stepping up. Cathy Murphy Burns calls this momentum “entrepreneurial.”

“What I’m seeing in our younger population, people in their 30s, is that they want to be small business owners, and they are the ones who are biting the bullet and taking the risk.” Some young natives are also returning, noting the sense of community they’ve been unable to find elsewhere.

Jared Colker, 33, left Huntington for nine years, first for college in Denver and then for corporate posts in Boston and Washington, D.C. But when his job offered him the chance to move yet again, with a three-year commitment, he made a decision in 2007 to return to Huntington. He took over as president of the family’s well-known electric business.

He embraced affordable downtown condos, which would have cost triple in a major city, and Colker says he’s happy with the choice. “I’ve seen more life come downtown, rather than just move out to the suburbs like in other cities,” he observed.

Colker does not miss a two-hour commute to work, as was often the case in Boston, or the expense and struggle of trying to enjoy big city living. Huntington’s hometown energy was always drawing him back years prior to his move. It had him by the heart.

“I had visited home over and over many times over the years,” he reflected. “When I would come home, I had learned how anonymous I could be in a big city. That was a good thing in some cases, but it was not as much a warm feeling,” he said. “I found that warmth when I came home — on the street or out at a restaurant or shopping. I came to look forward to that, and partly it weighed on my decision to return.”

He later reconnected with the woman who would become his wife, Lauren Angel, who had also worked as a professional dancer in Charleston, South Carolina, and Annapolis, Maryland, before returning home. And as the two courted, Colker said he happily became aware of how connected small town life could be.

“We would go out on a date and sometimes our parents would know where we’d gone before we got home,” he says.

Jennifer Wheeler came back home to Huntington twice after attending college and then later, moving to New York City to attend graduate school at the Fashion Institute of Technology. While her studies sent her to Paris and Italy, “it’s true that there is no place like home,” she now says.

She bought a three-unit apartment building in Huntington; she says that her New York apartment cost more than the mortgage, taxes and insurance payments combined. But it’s the culture that keeps her satisfied. “Huntington is a giving city. People really care about their neighbors.”

It also affords her access to civic leaders and plenty of opportunities to get involved. “Our leadership really cares about this community,” said Wheeler, 39. “You can be part of the process of growth. That so appealed to me. I definitely feel lucky to be here. It’s a blessing to be able to return.”

Out-of-the-Box Governing
Back in the mayor’s office, Williams says he’s focused not only on progress but on staying mindful that divine guidance has its place in moving Huntington ahead. That strategy might not be outlined in a textbook on governance, but for the determined mayor it’s a touchstone that matters.

“I didn’t do anything that hundreds of thousands of people don’t do every day,” he says about asking folks to pray. “It just happened to be in the public realm. But I’ve seen our community come together in a way I’ve never known in the 40-plus years I’ve worked here.”

Turning to God and watching others heed his call for spiritual guidance was comforting and has been helpful to what he sees as the city’s ongoing transformation. “I heard that prayer was being offered around the world. Somehow, in all the different languages, there was one word being used by all — Huntington. That’s incredible to me.”

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