(Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series about Leadership West Virginia as well as the successes and challenges of different regions of the state.)
By STEVEN ALLEN ADAMS
HUNTINGTON — There is probably no better place to begin a program focused on West Virginia’s challenges and successes than Huntington, a city that has overcome some negative stereotypes to emerge as a glowing example of the state’s potential.
Huntington kicked off the first session of the 2023 class of Leadership West Virginia. Celebrating 32 years, LWV was created in 1991 by the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce to cultivate leaders in the state. The program has graduated more than 1,450 alumni who have gone on to various leadership positions in government, business, charities, non-profits, and more.
LWV is a very selective program where people apply and/or nominated. A committee combs through the applications and choose new class members. My wife, Jessica Wintz-Adams, was part of the LWV class of 2015 and cherished her experiences. I was nominated and applied twice years ago, but I didn’t make the cut previously. But Jessica nominated me last fall and I applied again. This time, I was selected for the LWV class of 2023.
LWV sessions take place in different regions of the state. Class members learn how to be better leaders in their communities, how to work together with different people, and how to better communicate. Classmates also hear from lawmakers, educators, business leaders, and more.
Just as a matter of full disclosure, LWV requires classmates to pay tuition to cover the costs of the program. Ogden Newspapers is covering part of my tuition, which I am grateful for.
Huntington is a city that has overcome many challenges in recent years. The city was labeled the most obese city in the nation in 2010, with nearly half of Huntington’s residents considered to be overweight. The fat epidemic led celebrity chef Jamie Oliver to Huntington to film a TV series about getting the city’s residents back into shape.
How did that go? It resulted in Oliver crying because the city’s residents – particularly children – were rejecting his efforts. But since then, Huntington has been able to drop that label. The city has become a gourmet paradise, with several options downtown for healthy eating, fresh ingredients, and farm-to-table dinners. According to Politico, the city was able to reduce its obesity rate by more than 15 percentage points thanks to a renewed focus in the city on fitness and healthy eating.
Then Huntington became known for something else: heroin overdoses. In the wake of the state’s crackdown on prescription painkiller abuse, West Virginians switched over to heroin to get their highs. But that resulted in an epidemic of drug overdoses. In 2016, the city had 28 overdoses in a four-hour period according to the Associated Press.
But much like what it did to shake its obesity label, Huntington got to work. It created quick response teams to help overdose victims. It focused on new substance use disorder treatment options. Overdose calls were cut in half. While there has been an uptick in drug use post-COVID-19, the city’s efforts have saved lives and have helped people get clean.
Obesity and drugs are not problems exclusive to Huntington. West Virginia as a whole is one of the most obese states in the nation, and it leads the nation in drug overdose deaths. But Huntington serves as an example that these issues don’t have to stain the state’s reputation. They can be overcome and reduced.
THE WIZARD OF OZ
Gov. Jim Justice often describes West Virginia as a diamond in the rough that others across the country are beginning to find. Huntington is often called the Emerald City. That might just make Huntington Mayor Steven Williams the wonderful wizard of Oz.
Williams is in his third four-year term as the city’s mayor. Before that, he was a Democratic member of the House of Delegates. And it’s very likely that Williams will be a Democratic candidate for governor of West Virginia in 2024.
During Williams’ time as mayor, the city secured a $3 million grant in 2017 by winning the America’s Best Communities Competition out of 350 cities across the nation. It has pulled down millions of dollars in grants for economic development improvements around the city. It implemented several programs to address substance use and homelessness. It took three of the largest prescription drug distributors to court for what damage their painkillers did to local residents.
One need only to drive through downtown Huntington. It is by far one of my favorite downtowns. It’s very walkable, with a centrally located convention center, its shops and greenspace at Pullman Square, and its storefronts and restaurants. My wife, a Marshall University graduate nearly 14 years ago, constantly talks about how she wishes she was a student at Marshall today given all the options available in Huntington now versus the end of 2010.
With Nucor breaking ground just north of Huntington in Mason County, and with the Cabell-Huntington-Wayne County region across from Ohio and Kentucky, Williams believes any economic development project in Huntington must have a regional benefit.
“Our economic development strategies started over 10 years ago in essence with the underlying concept: that we would not be insular in just trying to move Huntington forward. Anything that we were doing had to be done with a lens towards regional growth,” Williams said.
Of course, one cannot write about Huntington without writing about Marshall University. Even before I met my Marshall alumni wife, I have always had a soft spot for Marshall. My hometown is forever linked with Marshall due to the philanthropy of John Deaver Drinko, a St. Marys native who has a library named for him at Marshall.
I have never subscribed to the notion of Marshall being the “little brother” to West Virginia University. The fact that both schools are not treated as equals, especially when it comes to funding from the Legislature, is a crime that should have been rectified a long time ago.
But because of its second-class citizen status, Marshall has had to adopt a mantra from the U.S. Marine Corps – improvise, adapt, and overcome. Marshall faces many of the same challenges as WVU and higher education as a whole, with fewer students seeking degrees and reduced enrollment.
Last month, Marshall increased resident and non-resident tuition by 2.5%, though certain students from designated metro counties in Ohio and Kentucky will see a 11% reduction in tuition and fees. While the university is projecting a $28 million deficit for the next fiscal year, officials believe they can make up for that in grants and its new Save to Serve plan, focused on eliminating waste and inefficiencies.
Tony Stroud is a member of the LWV class of 2015 and is a chief legal officer and general counsel at Marshall University. Stroud said 56% of Marshall’s student population are first-generation college students. But higher education officials see an enrollment cliff after 2025, caused by fewer millennials having children and fewer people in general attending college.
“We’ve realized that higher education has to change,” Stroud said. “We have to figure out a different model and a different path … we think we’ve done that at Marshall.”
In anticipation of the enrollment drop-off, Marshall is planning to grow its way out of the problem by increasing access to online programs and pivoting to more in-demand fields. These include aviation programs through its flight school and maintenance programs, advanced manufacturing, entrepreneurship and innovation education, and cyber security.
In light of Huntington’s past reputation, Marshall also wants to put more resources into its medical school and academic health programs focused on obesity and addiction medicine, as a well as gerontology in light of the state’s aging population.
Wayne County native and Marshall University alumnus Brad D. Smith, the former CEO of financial and communications software company Intuit, became Marshall’s 38th president in 2021. While not an academic, Smith’s business acumen and his ability to innovate make him ideal for Marshall’s current moment.
Smith set an ambitious goal last fall during his investiture ceremony for no Marshall student to graduate with student loan debt by the end of the next decade, with a pilot program set to launch with a small number of students this fall.
“Is this a forgiveness program? No, it’s a helping hand,” Smith told lawmakers at the beginning of the week when the Legislature held its May interim meetings in Huntington.
“What we found out is if the students commit to (federal student aid) each year … their families, to the best they can, cover their estimated contribution,” Smith explained further. “If the students agree to take a financial literacy course and learn how to manage their finances when they graduate and a work-study program, we’ll connect them with jobs in the state or paid internships, then we’ll go to work on everything else.”
Smith is also working with his WVU counterpart, E. Gordon Gee, in the Ascend West Virginia program, which creates incentive packages for remote workers across the nation to relocate to several West Virginia communities, such as the Greenbrier Valley, Greater Elkins, the Eastern Panhandle, and the Morgantown area.
Ascend is a private organization with a cash offer to remote workers of $12,000, access to free outdoor recreation opportunities, and access to co-working space. The goal is to lure young working professionals from areas with high costs of living to West Virginia’s growing regions with low costs of living and quick access to larger metro areas.
Not just focused on bringing in workers from other states, Marshall is committed to developing a trained workforce in West Virginia, where the labor participation rate remains the lowest in the nation. Marshall just renamed its Robert C. Byrd Institute to the Marshall Advanced Manufacturing Center last month. The renamed center will focus more on working with West Virginia and tri-state manufacturers to develop job training for the skills needed for those companies.
Between the work of Williams and the efforts of Marshall’s Smith, the shine has returned to Huntington’s emerald. The city will not be defined by its past and its tragedies. There is much here for other regions of West Virginia to learn from.
(Adams can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)