By Dr. E. Gordon Gee, President, West Virginia University; Dr. Jerome Gilbert, President, Marshall University; and
H. Woody Thrasher, Cabinet Secretary, West Virginia Department of Commerce
On the heels of Governor Justice’s State of the State address and the start of the Legislative session, many ideas and strategies for the growth and development of our state are being discussed. The West Virginia Forward initiative is bringing together state and local leaders to provide a blueprint for alignment and focus on solutions for a united and prosperous West Virginia.
West Virginia Forward was established last summer as a collaboration among West Virginia University, the West Virginia Department of Commerce and Marshall University. It quickly developed into a larger effort – all funded through private donations.
With assistance from the worldwide management firm McKinsey & Company, data-driven, nonpartisan goals were created: to advance West Virginia with strategies that support business growth and competition, strengthen and diversify the talent pipeline, advance our manufacturing and energy sectors, invest in educational opportunities at every level and embrace entrepreneurship and innovation.
After taking stock of the opportunities and challenges before us, it is time to put thoughts into deeds through energized partnerships and collaborative efforts. We are encouraged that West Virginia Forward partners – along with policymakers, experts and government officials – are working together to formulate results-driven policy to help strengthen and diversify all regions of the state.
We must be able to act quickly and grasp opportunities at the right moment. We are working with legislative leaders to show potential investors that West Virginia is ready for business. Site readiness is one of the best ways to do this, where businesses come in, look at potential sites, and start turning dirt to begin construction quickly.
Recently, the state of Alabama attracted a $1.6 billion Toyota and Mazda auto-manufacturing plant. By creating shovel-ready sites that have already gone through the review and preparation process, West Virginia can compete for similar opportunities. As a state, we must be willing to put together aggressive packages that offer incentives, including partnerships with institutions of higher learning.
The West Virginia Forward findings also identified the tangible personal property tax on inventory, machinery, and equipment as an area of our business climate where West Virginia is not competitive. The West Virginia Department of Commerce has also indicated that this is a barrier to recruiting businesses. Simply eliminating this tax is not a solution. We hope that policymakers will find a way to address this tax while ensuring that our education system and local governments are protected from a revenue perspective.
West Virginia’s tourism industry is a point of pride for the entire state as well as one of our greatest opportunities. We can grow this wild and wonderful industry by enticing new visitors and providing opportunities for them to stay longer and spend more money. There is an eight-to-one return on investment when we put our dollars toward marketing and tourism promotion. West Virginia Forward is partnering with the West Virginia Division of Tourism to develop ideas to leverage tourism, adventure sports and hospitality.
The national opioid epidemic is a hindrance to economic prosperity and thriving communities. We cannot ignore this devastating problem. But our greatest challenges can become our greatest opportunities. We will continue to do all we can to help reduce the distribution of opioids, educate physicians and healthcare specialists, expand rehabilitation and addiction services and strengthen law enforcement efforts.
While we cannot solve this epidemic alone, nor overnight, we can take the lead in looking at this crisis from all angles and use a comprehensive approach to find solutions.
We also know that the evolving needs of our state’s workforce require a strong investment in education at every level, especially higher education. Our institutions of higher learning are turning out graduates with strong critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, and we must do our best to keep this talent in the state by creating high-quality, high-paying jobs.
To build our future talent pool, we must increase the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) focus in secondary education and emphasize programs that provide education for specific jobs. We can expand the state’s role in vocational training by identifying priority occupations and channeling students there, collaborating with the private sector. And we must invest in education at all levels.
And this is just the start. As we continue to encourage collaboration and alignment among policymakers, local leaders and stakeholders, West Virginia Forward will be a bedrock for ongoing initiatives and projects.
With momentum on our side and enthusiasm high, this is our time. We must maintain our fortitude and resolve as we work together as One West Virginia. Now is the time to elevate our vision of what is possible: Moving West Virginia Forward.