May 29, 2013
By Jack Bogaczyk
HUNTINGTON – Mayor Steve Williams wants his hometown to be multi-dimensional. He wants his college town to be a destination city for sports.
In so many ways, the first-year mayor wants to make the City of Huntington sparkle.
He says one way to do that is with a diamond.
Williams, a three-year Marshall football letter winner and current president of the M Club, has grand designs for his city and school beyond the current Thundering Herd facilities enhancements funded by the Vision Campaign.
Williams’ own vision will please many – in particular Marshall baseball Coach Jeff Waggoner, whose program continues to play home games in Charleston and beyond.
“We will have a ballpark built before I leave office, by any means we can,” Williams said during a recent interview in his City Hall office. “There’s no doubt in my mind about that.”
If you’re looking for a time frame on that plan, Williams took office in January, and his term runs into January 2017. He can serve three terms.
“So, if they don’t get sick of me,” Williams said, smiling, “I can be here 12 years.”
His ballpark vision isn’t that far-sighted, really. Williams, 56, is a deal-maker, and he’s anything but sports-centric. The former Herd tight end and quarterback has an idea where he wants to take Huntington -- and from where his city has come.
On the wall behind his office desk hangs a photo of the Marshall football team that was lost in the 1970 plane crash.
“That’s there as a reminder to anybody from this town, that we were taken to our knees and we never gave up,” Williams said. “To anybody visiting from out of town, if they want to understand our psyche, this city -- as it is today -- was defined by the death of the players on that team and the boosters, defined by that tragedy.”
Williams doesn’t want that memory to fade, but he also wants Huntington to define itself in other ways. His work with the M Club displays how he hustles for progress … now.
Since he’s become M Club president (2010), Williams, MU Athletic Director Mike Hamrick – the mayor’s former Herd practice field foil – and M Club Director Travis Epling have doubled membership in the Herd letter winners’ club to more than 400. The M Club scholarship endowment has grown to $229,261, too.
Williams said aggressiveness will pay off for Huntington as well. In a sporting sense, he sees the city having a chance to emulate Indianapolis years back, when new facilities helped make the Indiana capital an athletic destination. He views a mini-Indy here.
“What I envision us becoming in Huntington … we’ve already taken some steps and we can take some monumental steps, is much like Indianapolis put itself on the international stage, host of the (1987) Pan American Games,” Williams said. “I see us in a similar fashion for youth and high school sports and even regionally for NCAA athletics, Conference USA championships.
“We have (Edwards) stadium, the Henderson Center, Dot Hicks Field, the Indoor Athletic Complex coming, a new soccer complex farther east. They’re already attracting youth soccer tournaments into the area. We have the high school wrestling state tournament here now. I’d expect we’ll be trying to attract volleyball, the girls basketball state tournament, cheerleading.
“I’d love for us for us to complete the puzzle, but we need two additional things:
“We have to build a baseball stadium and we need, I think, an outdoor track. You do that in that end of town between 24th and 18th streets, you have every facility you need, then little farther out the soccer complex.
“You do that, and there’s no reason Huntington can’t be the place to go in the region, a destination point.”
# # #
Asked how the Herd’s athletic program and success fits into his vision for Huntington’s rise, Williams said the university and the city are intertwined in a positive fashion in one way not many have considered.
“I keep telling ‘Burly’ (Hamrick’s college nickname) he’s helped make our budget this year,” Williams said. “The soccer complex, indoor complex and other construction at Marshall … my budget is being increased by $2 million this year without tax increases, and nearly half of that is coming from additional construction taxes.”
Williams said there’s no reason to stop building, but it’s going to take more than a Vision Campaign that’s providing $20 million in private funding toward the Herd’s current athletic construction.
“Once again, I think a baseball stadium is critical, but there’s one thing that’s certain,” the mayor said. “This is not something that we can expect Marshall University to build. I think this has to be a public/private partnership -- private enterprise, Marshall University and the city.
“I know where I’d like for it to be, but we’d have to acquire property for it to occur, the property between Third and Fifth avenues, the Flint Pigments and ACF (American Car Foundry) property, all of that. A baseball stadium could be configured there.
“Plus, we’re trying to develop on the other side of Third, to the river, have all of that torn down and have a research park built in there. We’ve been talking with our congressional representatives … the President has put together a plan for cities that have vacant industrial properties … the revitalization of that property is what we want. We’re putting plans together on that.”
Williams would like a ballpark that’s home to a minor league team as well as the Herd, and one that would be a potential home for a high school state tournament and other regional competition.
He said what it might mean to Waggoner’s program is obvious, considering what facilities have and will do for other Marshall programs.
“Look at the softball facility, and look what they’ve been able to do – go to the NCAA. Now, amazingly, the track and field team has nothing to run on, look at the success they’re having, (athletes) going to the NCAA.
“What I find interesting is we come in fifth place (in the Conference USA Championships), and you’d have sworn we won a championship here. Fifth place is certainly incredible considering what they have to work with but I’ve never cheered for coming in fifth in anything in my life.
“What (Coach) Jeff Small has done is incredible, but in my opinion, it’s a disgrace that we have a Division I-A school that has to use a high school facility to practice.”
Asked about the cost to build a ballpark (not including land acquisition), Williams said he hasn’t explored the matter to that extent. Recent Class A-level ballparks with seating capacities of 5,000-6,000 have been projects of $15-18 million. Morgantown’s proposed ballpark that would be the home of West Virginia University’s program is targeted in that range.
Williams said the Morgantown ballpark funding came up in a meeting he had back in January with WVU AD Oliver Luck. Morgantown developers are working with a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) plan.
“You can do a sales tax TIF or property tax TIF,” Williams said. “There’s a lot more money in the sales tax TIF than in the property tax TIF. With the property tax, in essence, what you do is freeze the property-tax level at beginning of the TIF, so the property tax that goes to the public freezes at let’s say the 2013 level, and any increase in the value goes to infrastructure on the project.
“However, if you have a sales tax TIF, it’s the same concept, except if there are any businesses that start to generate sales tax on the property prior to the date, then all those sales taxes go, all of it, to the TIF … In Wheeling, with Cabela’s, all of that was done with sales tax, the retail on it, hotels … helped build an interchange, water, sewer, etc.
“Let’s say we do target the area between Fifth and Third for a ballpark. If we’d be able to acquire the property, one of the things that’s important to me, yes, absolutely, I want to be able to go watch a baseball game and hear the crack of the bat. But as Mayor, I look at it that we have two areas that flood.
“Every heavy rain, that area of Fifth floods and that area of Third floods, but I’d be able to use the TIF proceeds to go in and fix the storm sewers that overflow, put in retention ponds and such for the water. It helps develop that area, which is important to us, too.”
# # #
Williams said his close relationship with Hamrick allows the city and Herd athletics to work closer together than they might otherwise.
The mayor said the Marshall AD usually has the upper hand – now – in telling MU alumni about their practice battles back in the late ‘70s, when Williams was two classes in front of Hamrick.
“I’ve got to get my word in on this,” Williams said, grinning. “Mike has alluded to this a bunch of times, how I went against him every single day in practice. He has his perspective of how those things went and I have mine, but one thing, who’d have dreamed back in the ‘70s that he’d be the director of athletics the same time I’m the mayor of the city.
“There’s a bond he and I have that I don’t have with many other -- or maybe any other -- former teammates because we did go against each other every day.
“I was a junior and senior when he was a freshman and sophomore. I played tight end, wide receiver and quarterback, mostly tight end, so I was blocking him. Burly always said I would hold. And I responded, ‘That’s because you were on the scout squad, and I was a starter.’
“You perfect things in practice, and I never had a holding call in one single game.”
These days, Williams said he’s pushing Hamrick in different ways.
“Just imagine,” the mayor said. “If you have a baseball stadium there, then just east the new soccer complex, back this way, the indoor complex. The football stadium, we need to start double-decking it.
“I keep pressing Mike … we need to be thinking about 15,000 additional seats, 7,500 on each side. He’s building the luxury suites. Good. We need to put an additional 15,000 seats on it. I know what people are saying, ‘Well, we don’t fill what we have,’” but we didn’t fill Fairfield Stadium before we built the current stadium.
“Everybody still talks about it as the new stadium. Well, it’s 22 years old. Places elsewhere tear down facilities after 22 years. In softball, we built a nice facility. Now, they go the NCAA Tournament. We built a new football stadium and all of a sudden we’re the darlings of (Division) I-AA.
“I think if we build a new baseball stadium and an outdoor track where we’re situated, we can construct things in such a way to get regional tournaments and Conference USA championships, too.”
# # #
Williams knows he and his plans have their naysayers. He wants those folks to know he won’t be deterred.
“What I’m trying to get us to do is be multi-dimensional,” Williams said. “For those of who love athletics, this plays a role in going from what I call ‘worst to first.’
“We’ve been identified as the most unhealthy city in the country, which I think is an unfair moniker. But from a marketing standpoint, I think we can show that we’ve gone from worst to first. We certainly don’t have to end up first, but if we’re making progress more than anybody else, then no one is going at a pace we are.
“All of this also means we also need to make sure we have a quality convention center and hotel. I look at the number of hotel rooms we have in the area, and are going to have, and if we’re going to have any kind of regional and an Indianapolis-type of feel with all these sports facilities, then we’ve got to have a quality convention center space in order to attract these things.
“We’re looking at it from an arts standpoint too, jazz festivals, blues festivals and such. There’s a jazz festival and blues festival, both, that we are looking at bringing in here next year.
“That’s going to draw people from a totally different demographic, but it’s like the old Greek perspective. You have to be well-rounded. You have the intellectual, the spiritual, the physical … need to be able to draw on the arts as well as on the athletic side of things.”
Williams said one of his favorite quotes is from Scottish writer W.H. Murray:
“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative and creation, there is one elemental truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits one’s self, the providence moves too.”
Williams distills Murray’s words as quickly as he formulates plans to reshape his city.
“One thing I’ve learned in this job is there are always reasons not to do something,” the mayor said. “You finally just have to say, the devil with you, we’re going to do it. We’re going to find a way.
“Like I said, we will have a ballpark built before I leave office, by any means we can. There’s no doubt in my mind about that.”