We are encouraged that the Beckley-Raleigh County Chamber of Commerce, coordinating with West Virginia University Tech, is holding a panel discussion among community leaders regarding what can be done to inject some giddy-up into the gas tank of community prosperity.
The Chamber is hosting the discussion – featuring experts in the fields of medicine, education and business and economic development – this Thursday at the Black Knight Country Club.
With state road money already at work in Beckley and more on the way, with the coal industry showing life and with 1,600 new residents pursuing an education on the Tech campus, perhaps never in recent times has there been a better time to have a serious conversation – and, following, to leverage the opportunity of the moment.
Yes, it will take more than talk. It will take more than drawing up a plan. It will take more than a feel-good, Kumbaya moment.
First, what do we aspire to be? A cool little college town? A lively regional hub for entertainment and the arts? The economic engine of southern West Virginia?
Any path forward will demand a new strategy. Whatever we have been trying hasn’t worked. You need look no further than the craters where buildings once stood, pockmarking the downtown landscape. You need look no further than our workforce participation rate, below 50 percent here in Raleigh County. You need look no further than our drug overdose death rate, among the highest in the entire country. And you need look no further than nearly 20 percent of the population living below the poverty line.
As the rest of America has moved ahead, we, sadly, have stayed behind. Per capita income? Right around $22,000 a year.
Frankly, we share the blame. We have known for decades that we needed to diversify our economy. The ups and downs of the coal industry should have taught us that. Now, here we are, perhaps witnessing coal’s last resurgence.
What then, Beckley, when the last coal car lumbers down the tracks?
Yes, best to get after this right now. Certainly, we will need to embrace risk and demand accountability. It could possibly mean bucking cultural norms and inviting all – yes, all – to the table. We’re not sure this community is ready to adopt principles of social progress, of openness, of inclusion. And that’s a problem. Telling someone, anyone, in so many words, that they are not welcome is part of what holds any community back. When a population pool is limited, so, too, is potential. When new ideas are ash-canned because, well, that’s not how we do things around here, well, nothing cool about that. Prosperity? That’s on the shelf.
We think there is one small anecdote that speaks to our larger problem:
For all of the resources at their disposal, the city and the county can’t seem to broach the idea of offering a simple and yet effective needle exchange program. With drug dependence on the rise, so, too, is the incidence of shared needles. Dirty needles spread hepatitis C and HIV.
So, with an easy and inexpensive solution on the table, what do our elected officials do?
They turn their backs.
So, how are we supposed to find prosperity when we can’t even address an issue – with a solution – that is right in front of our nose?
It is one thing to create a wish list. It is quite another to turn aspirations into reality.
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