Written by Aaron-Michael Fox.
For my older readers and those who haven’t been to Huntington for a while, when you read “Heritage Station,” you may think I’m referring to a restaurant at the corner of Eleventh Street and Veterans Memorial Boulevard.
Since 2009, Heritage Station has been the name for what was once “Heritage Village,” and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Depot before that. The old restaurant space is now occupied by a café called River & Rail and a gift shop called the Red Caboose.
The main building at Heritage Station was originally constructed by the Ohio River Railway in 1887. The depot was purchased by the B&O in 1901. It now functions as the home of the Cabell-Huntington Convention and Visitor’s Bureau and the Huntington Welcome Center.
In the 1970s, after the consolidation of the B&O and several other railroads formed CSX Transportation and passenger travel moved to Amtrak, the old depot was converted into a shopping center called Heritage Village.
For a variety of reasons, the old shopping center was not extremely successful. By the early 2000s, there were virtually no retail options there at all.
In 2009, the members of Create Huntington came up with a new vision for the complex in which it would function as a business incubator and artisan shopping center focused on small, independent, local entrepreneurship.
The concept of a business incubator officially goes back to 1959, but it didn’t gain much traction until the 1980s and has only in the last decade started to gain real popularity with such spaces springing up in virtually every major city in America.
So what is a business incubator? In the loosest terms, a business incubator is basically a commune for businesses that will share some type of common resources. These resources can range from outright financial support from a university or government institution, to infrastructure, to marketing assistance and mentorships. Like Heritage Station, retail incubators generally feature public entertainment spaces as well.
The current trend nationwide of emphasizing “micro-retailing,” or simply utilizing smaller retail spaces more effectively in contrast to sprawling “box stores;” combined with the already popular concept of a business incubator, makes Heritage Station in downtown Huntington a cutting-edge complex in 2018.
The impetus behind micro-retailing is a reaction to online sales accounting for an increasingly large portion of retail sales as a whole. But while online shopping may be like a dream if you already know exactly what you want to buy, physical stores offer an experience. You get to browse products that you may not think to look for online and hold them in your hands. You get to interact with other human beings and form a deeper connection with your community.
By offering small spaces with very reasonable rents, the Greater Huntington Park and Recreation District—which owns and administers Heritage Station—seems to have found a formula that works with the shopping center at 100% occupancy and a waiting list for openings.
So what is there to see at Heritage Station?
The goal of Heritage Station is not to make long-term investments in businesses, but to create an environment were startups can experiment and build a following before taking on the responsibilities and pitfalls of a full-sized storefront. So, with that said, you might come back a year from now and find a totally different collection of shops than you would today.
Right now, the list of shops at Heritage Station includes:
Retail trends come and go, but shopping and entertainment complexes such as Heritage Station are likely to stick around for a while. They are currently becoming so popular that many large metros have multiple ones throughout the city. One such complex that has become an industry standard is the Downtown Container Park in Las Vegas, Nevada, which is almost entirely constructed from refurbished shipping containers.
The combination of unique shopping and entertainment opportunities, an interesting and historic setting, and a clear administrative vision, put Huntington on the level with any comparable metro and make Heritage Station the Jewel City’s hidden gem.
Trivia: Heritage Station also includes the old Bank of Huntington building which, according to local lore, became the easternmost bank robbed by the James Gang in 1875.