Panelists spoke during the West Virginia Press Association’s Legislative Lookahead on Friday
By Autumn Shelton, West Virginia Press Association
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – West Virginia’s economy is growing, but there is always more that can be done, according to industry leaders who spoke during the West Virginia Press Association’s annual Legislative Lookahead on Jan. 5.
Mitch Carmichael, W.Va. secretary of Economic Development; Erienne Olesh, executive director of the Office of Student and Faculty Innovation at West Virginia University; and Bill Bissett, president of the West Virginia Manufacturers Association, answered questions from moderator John McCabe, editorial director for Ogden Newspapers, and other members of the media on various ways to keep the economic momentum moving in a positive direction.
Sec. Carmichael began discussion by stating that he has witnessed West Virginia’s tremendous economic growth firsthand.
“West Virginia has the best value package to take to the nation and the world,” Carmichael said, adding that when world-class companies, like South Korean based LG, become attracted to the state, the economic energy increases.
Olesh built upon Carmichael’s statement by noting that 98 percent of the businesses in West Virginia are small businesses that employ 50 percent of the state’s workforce.
She said the state has excelled in three things: making Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) matching grants available, establishing the West Virginia BusinessLink website, and ensuring the ease of registering a business.
However, Olesh said the state must continue to invest in small businesses and start-up companies; support increased innovation and research at the state’s universities; and “drive and bring industry into the state.”
“The more industrial partners we can bring into the state, obviously, that’s an immediate impact on jobs and job development,” Olesh said. “But I also really see that as a great and strong way to have a long-tail catalytic effect on our starter companies.”
West Virginia is a “venture capital desert” that is “underfunded across both private public sources,” she continued, noting that the state’s small business leaders also need increased access to experienced mentorships.
Bissett added that the arrival of major corporations makes for an exciting time, especially when many of the state’s leaders are on-board, but “the other side of that” is ensuring the retention of existing businesses and “how they can benefit from these same resources.”
In response to a question regarding the importance of childcare and affordable housing for increased economic development, Carmichael said these are national issues. Yet, West Virginia is working on solutions, such as incentivizing those who start childcare businesses and through the BUILD WV Act, which provides incentives for the development of residential housing properties.
Bissett stated that West Virginia needs to work to remove impediments in the areas of childcare, affordable housing and transportation, however, “It comes down to a workforce that’s going to work.”
“We must consider multigenerational assistance,” Bissett said. “How do we change the culture [of those] who have never had a working person in [their] life?”
He said he wants to see West Virginians get the jobs that are coming to the state, but it is a challenge considering the low workforce participation rate.
“I think, much like the Secretary said, giving those tools that we can to have employers help employees find that road to employment has got to happen,” Bissett said. “But I think it goes further. There’s a huge educational process, because I really think that not wanting to get a job after high school, if you complete it, you’re definitely not going to want a post-secondary education. To me, it’s a riddle that has to be solved in two ways.”
Carmichael added that the low workforce participation rate hasn’t prevented companies from coming to West Virginia.
“It’s an impediment once they get here,” Carmichael stated, agreeing with Bissett that the goal is to get West Virginians into these jobs.
“West Virginia is one of only 10 states in America that will provide no-cost community and technical college education for any citizen of West Virginia that wants to develop a skill, to take a marketable skill to the workforce,” Carmichael said. “That is a big attraction for employers throughout America.”
In discussing the recent announcement that LG plans to invest in West Virginia to nurture business creation, Olesh stated this is “a big start” in attracting other investors.
Carmichael added, “This is the augmentation and the diversification of West Virginia’s economy that we have all sought for so many years. They are investing $700 million, initially, in West Virginia [and are] committed to creating a minimum of 275 jobs. Over 150 of those jobs are guaranteed and committed to paying over $125,000 a year.”
“They chose West Virginia and they are thrilled to be here,” Carmichael continued. “West Virginia has arrived.”
Bissett noted that there is risk involved, but the “reward is tremendous.”
Conversation then shifted to the reduction of the state’s personal income tax following passage of House Bill 2526 during the 2023 legislative session.
“It’s important,” Carmichael said, adding that high growth states have the lowest or no personal income taxes.
“The more opportunity that an individual has to keep the hard-earned money that they have worked for is the right thing to do,” Carmichael said. “It incentivizes economic growth. It creates an ecosystem in which people want to be here, want to move here. By the way, we have already eliminated the tax on veterans pensions . . . we are in a position now, with this economic growth that we are experiencing, to take those steps to put money in people’s pockets that they’ve earned.”
Lastly, Carmichael noted that the state wants to focus on energy solutions, including renewables.
“We are an all of the above energy state,” Carmichael said.
“I am surprised that we don’t have gas fired power plants in West Virginia,” Carmichael added. “We should, we absolutely should. But the development of our natural resources, our God-given natural resources, the fossil fuel industry – nobody is turning their back on them. We are continuing the efforts to develop the downstream industries. We don’t want to be colonized and just take our natural resources and produce high value added products somewhere else. We want to do that here.”
Bissett stated that it’s “unfathomable . . . that we sit on this giant natural gas reserve but don’t generate electricity.” He also stated that the future development of nuclear energy is a “natural progression.”
“We are simply going to need more electricity to create all of these products from these new employers,” Bissett concluded.
Olesh added there needs to be a focus on energy diversification.
“Honestly, I’ve said this before to journalists and I will say it again because I do stand by it, natural gas, fossil fuels, we are not gonna flip a switch one day and they’re going to turn off . . . it’s simply not feasible.”
She said as the state moves forward, discussions surrounding hydrogen, natural gas, nuclear energy and more need to take place.
The other side to this, Olesh concluded, is “creating more grid resiliency and grid infrastructure security.”