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A plan for West Virginia's future

April 24, 2002|BY BOB MAGINNIS

For years, economic development plans for West Virginia have come and gone like coal trucks rolling down a country road. First there's a rumble in the distance as anticipation builds, then the roar of activity when it's delivered. And then it all passes by, the dust settles and life goes back to the way it's always been.

There are a few triumphs, usually when Sen. Robert Byrd moves in a federal agency in or when a foreign automaker wants a site for a U.S. plant, but no sustained success.

That's about to change, according to Patrick Gregg, public relations director for the West Virginia Roundtable. Gregg came to Hagerstown recently to tout "A Vision Shared," a new plan prepared by the Council for Community and Economic Development.

The process began two years ago when the council, a combination of gubernatorial appointees and representatives of private business, hired Market Street Services, Inc., to assess the state's economic competitiveness and develop a plan to improve it.

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What the firm found, through research and interviews with many businesspeople and citizens, was not encouraging. It discovered an aging population with a per-capita income below the national average and not enough people with high school diplomas or college degrees. The state is tied to the "old economy" which depends on manufacturing, timbering and mining, all sectors which are shrinking.

In addition, the study found what it called "an incredible fear" among some in the state that any change from what has been would threaten "the values they hold dear."

But it also found many who know that change is needed and are ready to embrace it, hopefully through this new plan.

"The plan will do a number of things," Gregg said, "but there will be four distinct areas of improvement."

The first is improving the state's "intellectual infrastructure," Gregg said.

"We definitely need to raise the bar on education, to make it more of a priority, and work on training so that we can start to do research and development at higher levels," he said.

This will also involve a commitment to lifelong learning, Gregg said, in recognition of the fact that a worker will probably change jobs several times during his or her lifetime.

The second key is to embrace the "new economy," Gregg said.

"We can't put all of our eggs in the coal-mining basket. We need to encourage entrepreneurship," he said.

To that end, the state has come up with a new program to help entrepreneurs get started, but the program - and others in the plan - are not so rigidly structured so that they can't be changed if need be.

Gregg noted that a technology park on Interstate 79 has already "gone though the roof," with a group of start-up companies and even a division of National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

The third pillar of the plan is results-based government, Gregg said.

"The plan calls for government reform, because there are so many issues dragging the state down, like worker's comp, where costs are through the roof," he said.

Gregg said such costs leave managers of companies which want to relocate scratching their heads and saying 'Why West Virginia?'

The final task the plan will take on, according to Gregg is "building bridges and empowering citizens."

What that means is bringing people and resources from different towns and counties together to do together what they can't do alone, Gregg said.

The plan notes that in a global economy, customers don't care about city or county lines, and if the region can work together, it can build a "brand name" that draws business.

Another possibility, Gregg said, would be partnering with private companies to build roads and other needed infrastructure in exchange for tax credits or other incentives.

This all sounds good, but will the West Virginia Legislature be ready for such sweeping changes, given that one part of the plan talks about developing new leaders who might have their own ideas about how to do things?

Gregg said the West Virginia Roundtable took the plan to the legislature on opening day and, backed by 16 other groups, asked for swift implementation.

The groups also provided an implementation plan that speaks to what needs to be done year by year to make progress. For example in the first year, the plan seeks to provide 1,000 West Virginians over 35 with a $500 bonus if they obtain a GED.

Ambitious? Sure, but as Gregg notes, something must be done. The number of 25-to-44-year-olds leaving the state has increased and the state's average age is now higher than Florida's. If there's going to be a future, then the state must start making changes now.

If you're interested in learning more, contact the West Virginia Roundtable at 821 Kanawha Valley Building, Charleston, W.Va., 25301.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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