CHARLESTON – John Deskins cites a plethora of obstacles when it comes to West Virginia’s economic future. None surpass the others.
For example, ask the director of the Office of Business and Economic Research at the University of West Virginia to talk about natural gas. Sounds hopeful, doesn’t it? After all, the state has plenty of them.
Most of the benefits, however, have not drifted outside the counties where the gas is drilled. One tip, Deskins says, is to experience jobs derived from gas production, such as making plastics and chemicals. But then you need sites for factories.
“We want to keep the gas here,” Deskins says. “Generally speaking, we want these businesses from Ohio or Pennsylvania to locate here.
“We try to attract them, but it’s difficult. You would like to go see officials in other states and present them with a list of sites. Apartment, have a number of acres, have already met the standards of a brownfield cleaning [removal of toxic waste]. We are in deficit of availability of the site.
Deskins, who recently spoke to the West Virginia National Gorge Development Authority, is a longtime observer, researcher, and authority on the economy of the Mountain State. He is also associate professor of economics at WVU.
As the year draws to a close, Deskins shared his thoughts on the critical issues that West Virginia’s economy continues to face.
Regarding the availability of sites to expand the natural gas economy, Deskins said most of the out-of-state sites with toxic waste have been cleaned up. When a state doesn’t offer much to start with, telling a moderately interested person that they need to spend millions of dollars on cleanup doesn’t help.
“A new business is not going to take over this site unless someone cleans it up,” Deskins said.
Then there is the earth itself, whether it is polluted or not. Factories are difficult to maintain on the mountainside. Then there is the working class of the state. After a 3% drop in population over the past 10 years – West Virginia was one of only three states to experience a loss – Highland State finds itself with fewer workers ready to do jobs modern.
“We have a shortage of educated, well-trained and drug-free workers,” Deskins said.
Even population loss has a darker liner. Not only has the state lost population, it has also lost the battle of death against births. More than 4,000 residents have died compared to last year, a continuing trend that takes a long time to reverse. It’s much easier to replace job-related population loss, Deskins says.
“To talk about West Virginia as a whole, parts of the state are doing well,” Deskins said. “We’d rather you move there than leave the state entirely. We can hope that the strengths of the stronger areas can spill over into other areas. “
Tourism is a perpetual source of optimism, Deskins acknowledges, and more can be done to promote it. In his speech to the Gorge Authority, he said that economic progress in that region would not be rapid or dramatic.
It will be until the end of next year before the region fully recovers from COVID-19, he predicts. In the meantime, he said he hopes more entrepreneurs serving the park’s customers will settle in the gorges, accompanied by strong and continued marketing from the state.
The federal government named the area the Gorge a national park in early 2021, sparking a surge of visitors last summer.
Another initiative focused on the outdoors is Ascend WV, a company funded by the new president of Marshall University, Brad Smith, who funded the company before taking up his academic post.
The program pays remote workers to relocate to West Virginia, but must overcome a lack of broadband before it can expand statewide. Right now, the program draws workers to Morgantown, Lewisburg and Shepherdstown, three broadband bargains compared to much of the rest of the state.
“Not having broadband is fundamentally a tradeoff for just about any kind of economic development today, especially for attracting new residents,” Deskins said.