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New Huntington mayor aims for economic growth

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Steve Williams has two numbers in mind as he prepares to take office next month as the next mayor of Huntington: 50,000 and 1.

"I fully expect we'll be back above 50,000 by the time of the next census," Williams said of the city's population. For the first time in a hundred years, Huntington's population dropped below 50,000 in the 2010 census.

Getting back to 50,000 will require an aggressive plan for economic growth in a city that, as others, has seen its setbacks in recent decades.

Huntington will be aggressive in annexation opportunities, Williams said. It will take the properties that have been cleared of dilapidated buildings and designate them for residential development programs, and it will change its attitude toward zoning changes.

Huntington residents are notorious for fighting zoning variances that would help development, Williams said. When requests for zoning variances come into City Hall, the city will look at how the proposed changes will affect entire neighborhoods rather than small areas, he said.

"All those things translate into people moving into Huntington. Our goal is to be the largest city in the state by 2020. My goal is not necessarily to overtake Charleston. My goal is to set a standard of growth that will attract attention throughout the country," Williams said.

Huntington doesn't trail Charleston by much. The 2010 census counted 51,400 people in Charleston and 49,138 in Huntington. Huntington would have to reverse a decades-long decline in population and grow by 4.6 percent to catch Charleston.

At least Huntington's rank as the state's second-largest city is secure for now. Parkersburg is 17,646 people behind Huntington, Morgantown 19,478 and Wheeling 20,652.

"Huntington is the best-kept secret in the state because city government has gotten in the way," Williams said.

When people in other parts of the state talk about Huntington, they think of pension problems and budget woes, Williams said.

Williams said he wants to get city government out of the way of growth. He plans to manage the budget prudently, resist annual tax increases and create an environment that invites investment and development.

He expects the buzz to spread in two years.

"I don't care if people aren't paying attention to us now. They will be paying attention to us in two years," he said.

There are good things going on in Huntington, Williams said. Marshall University is growing its research efforts and its engineering programs. Cabell Huntington Hospital and St. Mary's Medical Center are in growth mode. The commercial area around Pullman Square is growing. And Create Huntington, a loosely organized group of interested city residents, has accomplished several things that improve the quality of life in the city.

Williams said his election campaign quoted an old saying that the greatest danger is not in aiming high and falling short, but rather it is to aim low and hit the mark.

For a while, Huntington was known for its crime rate, but now "Huntington is the safest city in West Virginia," Williams said. He credited Police Chief Skip Holbrook for much of that.

"It's not where we want to be, but thank God it's not where it's been."

Williams spent eight years in the House of Delegates representing Huntington and part of Cabell County before he left to go into private industry. He expects to be a familiar face in the Capitol again. He was at the Capitol in November to listen as an interim committee discussed the future of the home rule pilot program, in which Huntington is one of four participating cities.

"I've been told I've spent more time in Charleston than either mayor has the past 12 years. I'll be there several times each week. It's important that I have a presence there," he said.

Williams was the last city manager of Huntington before voters approved changing the charter to the strong mayor form in 1985. He was the youngest city manager in Huntington history when he was hired, and two years later, he said, he was out the door.

After leaving City Hall, Williams served in the House, where he chaired the banking committee, worked on reorganizing medical education and helped create the Rural Health Initiative.

After he left the Legislature, he became a stockbroker. He was with Bank One in Charleston from 1994-98. The next six years, he was a Bank One investment adviser in Lexington and Louisville, Ky., and Columbus, Ohio. He transferred to Chicago in 2000. In 2004, he managed the Midwest territory and its 300 brokers for Citizens Bank of New England. In 2006, moved to West Virginia when he took the post of director of training for Huntington Investment Co., a division of Huntington Bank. His territory included West Virginia, Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio.

He was elected to the Huntington City Council in 2008. He resigned his position with the bank earlier this year to concentrate on his run for mayor, in which he defeated one-term incumbent Kim Wolfe.

Williams, 56, said his experience in running large operations in the private sector has given him insight into how city government can be run more effectively. For one thing, he will require monthly financial statements similar to the ones he received weekly while working at investment companies, he said.

Williams currently is a member of the Huntington City Council. His last regular meeting as a councilmember will be the evening of Dec. 24. Councilmembers didn't want to meet that night, but it's required by the city charter. Williams said the agenda will be short with perhaps one item. The last ordinance he will sponsor as a councilman will be to repeal the occupation tax, which was allowed by the city's home rule program and is tied up in court.

Williams said the repeal will receive its first reading on Christmas Eve and its second reading in January, after he has taken office as mayor.