River City Revitalization
Issue:Winter 2015 : Features
About Steve Williams:
His first job was as an intern at Huntington City Hall. That was in 1979. Five years later, he became the city’s economic development director. He went on to become Huntington’s youngest city manager, a member of the West Virginia House of Delegates and a Huntington city councilman. Professionally, he spent more than 25 years as aninvestment banker and broker.
In 2012, Williams was elected Huntington’s 47th mayor. Since his election, he’s frequently talked about the importance of small business and entrepreneurship to Huntington’s economic future. Offering him a chance to elaborate on his views, CAPACITY interviewed him in his office at City Hall.
CAPACITY: Why is small business important to the city of Huntington?
With the exception of maybe a handful of really large operations, every business in our city is a small business. It seems to me that what’s important is that most of those small businesses are locally owned and controlled. Decisions about their future are made right here in our community, not in the executive suite in some distant big city.
As much as I’m pleased when any company decides to invest in Huntington, I would much rather see local people invest in a new business or expanding an existing one. While they will always have to keep a close eye on their bottom line, they’re going to make decisions based on local needs and trends. If people in Chicago are making a decision about a business operation here, all they are going to know is what’s on the balance sheet. They’re not concerned with anything else.
I may be a public official but I consider myself a businessman first and foremost. I was in banking for more than 25 years, and as a broker I worked closely with many, many businesses over that time. In the process, I learned about the importance of meeting customer needs. That’s what I’m trying to build here as mayor – the importance of dealing not only with the people who live and work here but other people as well, including those who might be looking at perhaps bringing a business here.
If there’s any level of discretion in where they’re going to locate their new business, they’re not going to go into a community where they can’t have some level of certainty or dependability on what they’re going to be facing. If there’s some level of uncertainty, the answer is always going to be either “No” or “Not now.”
That puts the burden on us, as a city government, to define any fear or discomfort they might have and do our best to allay or overcome it. If they walk into a city hall looking for help and all they leave with is a list of telephone numbers and a message of “Good luck,” they’re going on to the next town on their list. That’s why we’ve created the post of business services advocate, where there’s just one person they can deal with who will help them every step of the way – getting their business license, dealing with inspectors and such. Business people who come to City Hall are telling us that Sharon Pell is doing a bang-up job for us in that role.
CAPACITY: Let’s go back a little bit in time to when you were debating with yourself about maybe running for mayor. You may not have written anything down on paper, but you must at least have had in the back of your mind some goals that you would like to accomplish as mayor. I’m betting that getting a fairer shake for businesses – and especially small businesses – was high on that list, right?
Absolutely, it was certainly a goal for me. In order for Huntington to prosper, to be transformed, it has to be seen as the most business-friendly community in West Virginia and this region. My thinking along that line began back when I was on Huntington City Council. I remember, even earlier, when I was an intern at City Hall back in the late 1970s, Councilman Harold Frankel said to City Manager Dick Barton: “Dick, the business and occupation tax is the worst tax you have on the books.” Barton looked back at him and said, “Yes, but it brings in the most money.” Later, when I was working in economic development, I was constantly being told by business people that the state’s B&O tax was a disincentive that kept companies from investing in West Virginia. In its wisdom, the Legislature got rid of the state B&O tax but left it in place for cities. So when Mayor Kim Wolfe suggested that Huntington establish an occupation tax, I agreed to help him on that only if he would eliminate or begin reducing the city’s B&O tax. The bargain that was struck was that we would remove the B&O tax on manufacturing and cut it by half on retail and service businesses. When I became Mayor, I advocated that the occupation tax was a bad idea and City Council agreed to repeal that action. However, we kept the elimination and reduction in B&O taxes. When the city sales tax came along, I looked on it more or less as an experiment that would enable us to see what kind of impact it would have. Some people said of course that it would drive business out of the city. That’s not what happened. In fact, every year we have seen our revenue projections exceeded by 25 or 30 percent. It not only replaced the B&O tax dollars that we gave up, we’ve collected $2 million or $3 million more that we ever would have thought the B&O tax would have brought in.
Getting back to your original question: What was my aspiration when I decided to run for mayor? Again let me say, my goal is to make Huntington the most “business-friendly city” in West Virginia and the region. And to do that we have to address some issues we’ve ignored for too many years. Our long-time street flooding problem is a perfect example. By enacting a water quality fee we’ve addressed the problem for the first time in more than 50 years. That’s a long time to put up with flooded streets, intersections and underpasses every time there’s a heavy rainstorm. And what’s important, it seems to me, isn’t just the fact that we addressed the flooding problem; it’s how we went about it. We formed a working group and brought to the table Marshall University, St. Mary’s Medical Center, Cabell Huntington Hospital, Steel of West Virginia, real estate developers, other business people and labor leaders – some of the best minds in the city.
What came out of our discussion was a consensus measure that’s palatable to business and raised the capital needed to start addressing the infrastructure needs that are at the heart of the flooding problem.
CAPACITY: You’ve talked about the opportunities ahead for Huntington and the role that small business can play in making those happen. Let’s explore that.
I see at least three areas in the city where exciting things can happen if we manage things right – one is the long-closed Huntington plant of ACF industries, a second is the Hal Greer Corridor and the third is Old Central City. All three are ripe for development and if nurtured properly could put Huntington in the same league as Lexington, Kentucky. The rusted-out ACF plant will never again be home to manufacturing. It’s just not in the cards. But it’s a huge tract of land adjacent to Marshall University and as big or bigger than the Marshall campus. It’s an ideal spot for a mixed used development that could include not only new MU facilities but housing, retail shops and perhaps other businesses. Small businesses certainly would be part of such a development. In 10 years, people will not recognize Hal Greer Boulevard. The ugly 1940s-vintage public housing will be gone. In its place, will be new private development that will tremendously enhance this entrance to the downtown and will complement the huge
investment that’s been made in the neighborhood by Cabell Huntington and Marshall. And again, there will be ample opportunity for small businesses. The third area poised for growth, West 14 Street, is truly a diamond in the rough. The Old Central City neighborhood has everything that developers say is essential to growth. It has access to Interstate 64; it has access to water and rail and is near Tri-State Airport. And make no mistake about it; Central City is fertile ground for small businesses. Yes, much of that opportunity will be in retailing. But the Heartland Corridor intermodal facility now being developed at nearby Prichard in Wayne County is going to have a huge spill-over impact on Central City, with potential investments in warehousing and perhaps light manufacturing.
CAPACITY: The first question we asked you was about the importance of small business to Huntington’s economic future. Let’s talk a bit about entrepreneurship, for the two certainly go hand in hand. Small business is important but creating an entrepreneurial culture is even more important.
I’m honored to be one of 11 mayors nationwide invited to meet with the experts at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. Headquartered in Kansas City, Missouri, the foundation aims at fostering education and entrepreneurship. I’ve been to three foundation sessions. At the most recent session there was an in-depth examination of the tax incentives often offered to lure new businesses. The verdict: such incentives are seldom worth the dollars they cost. The main thing I’ve come away with after my visits to the foundation is a new recognition of the importance of technology in job creation and economic growth.
That, of course, brings to mind the Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Flexible Manufacturing, which offers the kind of technology resources that otherwise are found only in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas. Other cities our size simply don’t possess them. One thing that’s clearly essential if our economy is to thrive and growth is an expanded ability for people to make things. Taking a piece of steel and transforming it into something useful and valuable is what RCBI is all about and we’re extremely fortunate to have it here. It has to be a tremendous incentive to manufacturers thinking of locating here.
|Huntington Mayor Steve Williams announces a new initiative called “Huntington: Be Small. Live Large.” The mission is to encourage entrepreneurship and create an environment in which small businesses can prosper and grow.|
CAPACITY: Before we wind this up, let’s talk a bit about your “Huntington: Be Small. Live Large” effort.
What this new long-term initiative, which we debuted at a news conference at RCBI in April, is all about is supporting existing businesses, promoting local business and inspiring entrepreneurs. One thing I learned back when I was working in economic development is that here in Huntington we have a great many services we offer the business community – and would-be businesses – but too often we don’t work together to provide those services. It’s not that we’re necessarily competing with each other; it’s just that we’re each doing our thing and not working together when we should.So, we invited people to come to the table to talk about pooling and coordinating their efforts, and I’ve been gratified by their response to our invitation. We recognize that we’re a small community, and we need to recognize that as an asset. My administration’s focus from day one has been to seek job growth in our community. “Huntington: Be Small. Live Large” is a result of that ongoing effort. Helping our existing small businesses, creating opportunities for new startup companies and entrepreneurs are the core of any success we will have in moving Huntington forward.
A 1974 graduate of Huntington High School, Williams earned a bachelor’s degree in political science with cum laude honors from Marshall University in 1978 and a master’s degree in public administration from West Virginia University in 1980.
He is president of Marshall University’s M Club and serves on the boards of Marshall’s Big Green Scholarship Foundation, Alumni Association and Society of Yeager Scholars.
A member of the Huntington Rotary Club, he is a senior warden and Sunday school teacher at Trinity Episcopal Church.
Married to Mary Poindexter Williams, he has two stepdaughters, Nikki and Laura Urban.