Forum on a Bright Economic Future for the Mountain State
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Community organizers, business boosters, labor officials and religious leaders joined Wednesday to try to jumpstart what they said are long-overdue discussions — and actions — to diversify the economy of West Virginia’s coalfields.
A variety of speakers and audience members from nonprofit organizers, government agencies, academia and the private sector said the effort simply can’t wait any longer, given the steep ongoing decline in Southern West Virginia’s coal industry.
Everyone from political leaders to average West Virginians need to face — and even embrace — the notion that the state’s future economy isn’t going to look like its past economy, according to those many who spoke at or attended the day-long session called “A Bright Economic Future for the Mountain State.”
The event, sponsored by the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the West Virginia Community Development Hub, prompted agreement and consensus, presenting a stark contrast to continuing battles over coal mining issues like mountaintop removal and climate change.
“There certainly is an element in our state that doesn’t want things to change, and we have to overcome that,” said Matt Ballard, president of the Charleston Area Alliance. “When we talk about West Virginia’s future, we have to understand that it’s not going to look like our past.”
Jeremy Richardson, a UCS fellow and West Virginia native, put together the economic diversity event as part of a project examining the state’s coal economy, coal’s decline, and the industry’s role in global warming.
Richardson, who comes from a family of miners, said the state is rightly proud of its heritage of producing coal to power the nation’s energy and steel needs. But he said most residents really have a complicated relationship to the coal industry.
“It’s really hard to say, ‘Is coal good or is coal bad’?” Richardson said. “The answer is, ‘yes.’ It’s both.”
But noting government projections for a steep decline in production in the state’s southern coalfields, Richardson said the need for diversification is clear.
“The path we are on is not sustainable,” Richardson said. “We need to face that reality head on.”
Keith Burdette, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s commerce secretary, said the administration focuses quite a lot on economic diversification, especially on projects in which the Marcellus Shale natural gas boom could revive the state’s chemical and manufacturing industries.
“We are all about diversity of West Virginia’s economy,” Burdette said. “That’s all we do.”
But when asked to list three specific actions the administration has taken to help soften the blow for the ongoing decline in Southern West Virginia coal that’s expected to continue for some time, Burdette was at a bit of a loss.
“Well, look, I’d like to tell you there is some master scheme in every section of the state,” Burdette said. “But the challenge we have in the coal-producing areas of the state is that it’s a lucrative profession … it’s awfully difficult to motivate these folks into a different career path if the one they’ve enjoyed for so long might still be available.
“There is going to be a huge transition, regardless,” Burdette said. “As some of the fields play out, we will have communities that need to find a new way of life.”
The only specific effort Burdette could cite to help with that search was “Reconnecting McDowell,” a partnership to boost that county’s educational system as a path toward economic improvements.
“That’s probably [items] 1, 2 and 3 is that one effort,” Burdette said. “But if we can make it work there, we can make it work anywhere else in the state.”
Other speakers offered a variety of potential prescriptions for diversifying the state’s economy, including efforts to increase scientific research and enhance the state’s technology sector and proposals to grow the agriculture sector by better marketing of locally produced food.
Anne Barth, executive director of TechConnectWV, said West Virginia remains far behind nearby states like Ohio and Pennsylvania in funding to assist entrepreneurs from initial development through commercialization of new products.
Scott Rotruck, who retired recently as a Chesapeake Energy vice president, said the state should do more to improve energy efficiency, a move that would help the environment, create jobs, and save money. Ballard agreed, saying that some West Virginians wrongly leave their lights on all the time, thinking doing so burns more coal and thus helps the state’s economy.
Many speakers touted the benefits of the Marcellus Shale boom, endorsing the Center on Budget and Policy’s efforts to promote setting aside a portion of natural gas taxes for future economic diversity efforts.
Ted Boettner, executive director of the center, said that if West Virginia had created such a “future fund” several decades ago, it could be sitting on a nearly $8 billion reserve for education, infrastructure and economic efforts. And Richardson outlined the results of Union of Concerned Scientists polling that shows strong support among state residents for a “future fund,” even if creating it also involves increasing taxes on the coal industry.
“There is apparently quite a disparity between what voters say they want and what politicians think voters want,” said Kent Spellman, executive director of the West Virginia Community Development Hub. “This is a conversation that is just too important to put aside.”
Charleston lawyer Tom Heywood touted numerous improvements — new schools, a stronger state budget, improved college attendance rates and better early childhood programs — since what he called the state’s “functional insolvency” when Democrat Gaston Caperton took over the governor’s office from Republican Arch Moore in 1989.
But Heywood said state residents and political leaders still suffer from a collective sense of low self-esteem and low expectations. He noted the state’s chronic poverty, low educational attainment and serious drug-abuse problems.
“We accept second-class status,” Heywood said. “We accept things about ourselves that we should not accept.”
On the drug abuse problem, Kenny Perdue, president of the state AFL-CIO, said he’s convinced the state needs to do more than push for drug testing of workers and jobseekers — but also provide more and better help for those who develop drug problems.
“We have to find a way to clean these people up and get them back into the workforce,” Perdue said. “We can’t just throw them to the wolves. I don’t think we have the serious treatment effort that we need.”
Rev. Jeff Allen, executive director of the West Virginia Council of Churches, said it was a victory just to have Wednesday’s meeting, because “no one thought we could have a discussion about economic diversity in West Virginia because it would be perceived as anti-coal.”
Moving forward, Allen said it’s important to be sure that all state residents have an opportunity to have their say, so that communities can design their own economic futures.
“It’s not about getting a slice of the pie,” Allen said. “It’s about having a say in the kind of pie.”
And Kristen Barker, president of a Cincinnati-based industrial cooperative program modeled on the Mondragon Worker-Owner Cooperative from Spain, said she noticed that West Virginians at Wednesday’s meeting talked a lot about finding ways to get new businesses to move into West Virginia.
“You’ve talked about all the things you can do to got people to come here,” she said. “I would instead think about how awesome the state is and how you have everything you need right here. The power is right here.”