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Raleigh County on economic upswing

By JESSICA FARRISH

The Register-Herald

BECKLEY, W.Va. — The Raleigh County economy is ranked sixth of all counties in the state for growth and sustained businesses at nearly three times the rate of the top-ranked Kanawha and second-place Cabell County, a recent study by a New York financial technology firm shows.

The firm, SmartAsset, tracked the growth of counties and municipalities nationwide based on incoming investment from business, government, real estate and the local economy; the growth in the number of businesses over a two-year period; gross domestic product growth; new building permits; and the average federal funding received per capita.

The Raleigh economy generated $98 million in GDP, a GDP growth index of 3.18, $81 in federal funding per capita and 1.2 new building permits issued per 1,000 homes.

 Raleigh saw a negative business growth rate of minus 1.7 percent, but Raleigh business growth outranked that of Kanawha County, which SmartAsset ranked as the top county for economic growth in the state. Kanawha has a business growth rate of minus 4.7 but sees federal funding at a rate of $227 for each Kanawha citizen.

Raleigh also outranked Cabell, the second-highest county for economic growth (GDP $129 million with a GDP growth index of 3.23), in both federal funding ($67 per capita) and business growth (minus 4.4 percent).

“These days, we will take that,” New River Gorge Development Authority (NRGDA) Director Joe Browse said Monday, when he learned the news of the study. “For the period of 2012 to 2015, we really were impacted by the job losses in the mining industry and in the coal supply chain.

“A lot of that has had the time to work itself out, and at the same time Raleigh County is positioned as a hub, obviously for southern West Virginia.”

NRGDA promotes community and economic development efforts in Raleigh, Fayette, Nicholas and Summers counties by business expansion and retention efforts.

While several local businesses closed in Beckley in 2016 and Sears Holding announced in 2017 that longtime local retailers Sears and Kmart were targeted for closure, Browse believes the business growth rate of the recent SmartAsset study demonstrates an ultimately successful effort by NRGRDA, county and city officials and business owners to sustain businesses through a severe downturn in the coal industry.

“Our plans for promoting economic development also tend to follow the West Virginia Development Office’s direction,” Browse said. “They’re placing a unique emphasis on retaining what they have.

“What those numbers tell me is: We are doing a better job of retaining businesses.”

Federal spending per capita — one earmark of SmartAsset’s rankings — showed Kanawha citizens saw an average of $227 per capita in federal funds and Raleigh received $86 per capita.

While NRGDA has siphoned federal funding into the region through the Appalachian Regional Commission’s POWER grant program for promoting entrepreneurialism, Browse said ongoing federal investment isn’t a benchmark of success, in and of itself.

“If it’s your ultimate benchmark, that’s not a good sign,” he said. “It’s more important to be able to demonstrate the private sector growth that those federal dollars have helped leverage.

“The ultimate aim of the federal programs is not necessarily to promote private sector development immediately or on a short-term basis, but it’s meant to lay the groundwork for future private investment.”

While the SmartAsset study is encouraging, Browse suggested that Raleigh County and the region has a two-pronged strategy to expand business growth. The first is a development of business-ready sites.

“It’s incredibly competitive across the country in trying to attract manufacturing, because those are higher-paying jobs,” he said. “A challenge is having ready sites with the appropriate buildings and the appropriate infrastructure.

“Number two, it’s about how we market ourselves,” Browse said. “Look at all of our business parks in the four counties and the Raleigh County Park at the airport.

“There are sites available for midsized manufacturers to come in,” he added. “We’ve got to get those sites ready, and we’ve got to tell people we’ve got them, and we’ve got to tell them we’ve got workers to fill the jobs.”

Raleigh County Administrator Jeff Raines said Monday that the SmartAsset study is encouraging and suggested that an uptick in the local coal industry possibly plays a role.

“That is great news,” he said. “It’s a good surprise. Hopefully, that is a trend of things picking back up.”

Comal, Texas, topped the SmartAsset list with a business growth rate of 11.9 percent and a GDP growth of around $1.1 million, followed by Los Angeles, Calif., which showed a 6.2 percent increase in business and a GDP growth of about $62 million.

Rounding out the top ten list were Wasatch, Utah; Fort Bend, Texas; Mackenzie, N.D.; Forsyth, Ga.; Collin, Texas; Fairfax, Va.; Harris, Texas; and Scott, Ky.

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