By JOSEPHINE MENDEZ
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — For several years, the city of Huntington has been defined by its worst attributes – a drug problem, overwhelming obesity rates and financial struggles.
But now, the people of Huntington have a new label to hang their hat on.
After competing for three years against 350 communities, Huntington was named America’s Best Community on Wednesday during an awards ceremony in Denver, Colorado.
“For too many years, there have been people who have come to our community to tell us about the problems in our area,” Huntington Mayor Steve Williams said after taking the stage with other representatives from Huntington to accept their award and the grand prize, a check for $3 million. “I am proud to be able to say . . . this is worst to first.”
More than 1,000 miles away at a watch party at Trifecta Productions in Huntington, Marshall University students, business owners, elected officials and community members burst into cheers and tears as Vince Gill, ambassador for the competition and country music legend, announced Huntington as the winner.
“It’s the most awesome feeling I’ve ever had other than my wedding day and the birth of two sons and my grandson,” said Huntington City Councilwoman Joyce Clark. “I don’t think most people expected us to win. I think they thought, ‘How could a city with a drug problem and money problems and everything else be America’s Best Community?’ . . . Every town has those same problems, but what makes us special is our people, our tenacity and our drive.”
Whether people live in Highlawn, Westmoreland, Fairfield or the West End, Clark said the award is something everyone in Huntington should be proud to claim.
As a Marshall student, Bethany Nielson, 20, of Morgantown, said she is amazed by the transformation the city has made in the past few years.
“There is so much pride in the community and so many people involved in improving the lives of others within the community,” she said.
Having already seen the ball rolling and several of the projects in the city’s revitalization plan, Philip Nelson, co-developer of Capital Venture Corp. in Huntington, said adding another $3 million to the pot will only boost those efforts.
“This provides us a springboard to do so many things that we want to do,” he said. “We’ve come through the worst times and we are building to better times, and this is just a reaffirmation that we are on the right track.”
To win the America’s Best Communities competition, Huntington, along with seven other finalist cities, was judged on how well it could implement and garner support of its revitalization plan, also known as the Huntington Innovation Project (HIP), which outlines four projects and ideas that are aimed at jump-starting the local economy and enhancing quality of life.
“Our people believe in the direction we are taking with our community’s revitalization plan and, because of that, they have embraced our commitment to transform Huntington and the broader Appalachian region for the next 50 years … We make no little plans in Huntington. We aspire. We believe. We commit.”
Community members will have the chance to welcome home and congratulate Huntington’s America’s Best Communities leadership team at 2:45 p.m. Thursday, April 20, at the Huntington Tri-State Airport.
Lake Havasu City, Arizona, was awarded second place and received $2 million, and Statesboro, Georgia, was awarded third place and received $1 million.
The competition was sponsored by Frontier Communications, Dish Network, CoBank and The Weather Channel.
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