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Summit speakers push for WV to keep growing relationships abroad


Charleston Gazette-Mail

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va.  — Business and policy leaders discussed in various panels and speeches Wednesday how to grow the Mountain State’s economy, with most discussions boiling down to encouraging the state and its businesses to grow relationships abroad.

Steve Spence, left, director of the West Virginia Development Office’s international division, speaks about opportunities for local businesses to grow relationships abroad Wednesday at the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce’s 81st annual Meeting and Business Summit held at The Greenbrier.
(Gazette-Mail photo by Max Garland)

On the first day of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce’s 81st annual Meeting and Business Summit, held at The Greenbrier resort, speakers were bullish about the state of West Virginia’s economy, particularly in the energy industry. However, speakers said the state has not reached its ceiling yet in terms of foreign investment.

“All the jobs aren’t going to China,” said Steve Spence, director of the West Virginia Development Office’s international division. “More foreign investments are happening in the U.S., and that’s continuing to grow. Our goal is to find companies looking to invest in the U.S.”

During the panel discussion “International Trade: Selling West Virginia to the World,” Spence and others urged state businesses to take advantage of export programs to help grow the Mountain State’s relationship with countries like Canada, China and Japan.

“An important role for us is to serve small- and medium-sized businesses,” said Anthony Mak, director of the Hong Kong Trade Development Council. “We understand the risk-taking appetite for these businesses can be small, but we are here to help you find the most appropriate business partner.”

Jason LaTorre, senior trade commissioner of the Canadian Embassy to the U.S., said Canadian companies already are comfortable with the Mountain State. Bombardier, a Canadian aerospace company, has a commercial aircraft repair facility in Bridgeport, and energy company TransCanada has many employees in the state after purchasing Columbia Pipeline Group, he said.

“We want to build on what we’re doing and take it to the next level,” LaTorre said. “For any companies that want to set up in Canada, we can provide assistance.”

Local companies are sometimes hesitant to expand internationally because it gives off the impression they may move jobs elsewhere, he said, even if that is not always the case.

Even if West Virginia companies aren’t always establishing new locations abroad, they often are exporting their products to new countries, according to Spence. He said West Virginia had a $1.5 billion trade surplus in 2016, and 2017 has a good chance of improving upon that.

The state exported $1.1 billion in coal in 2016, but it already has shattered that record in 2017, according to Spence. He said the state has exported $1.6 billion in coal in the first six months of this year, a 235 percent increase.

During a year of increased export activity, Spence said companies from India, Australia and Japan have visited the Mountain State to discuss business opportunities in West Virginia’s chemical sector.

For foreign investment to occur, however, West Virginia needs to enhance its tourism efforts, according to Chelsea Ruby, director of the state Division of Tourism.

In a panel focused on small business and tourism, Ruby said international businesses are most likely to visit a state before investing in it, meaning a strong tourism industry can help encourage economic development.

But West Virginia has a long way to go when comparing its tourism metrics to other states, Ruby said. She said annual traveler spending in the state is $4.5 billion, lower than all neighboring states (the next-lowest state is Kentucky at $9.2 billion). That also applies to tourism-supported jobs, with West Virginia placing last at 46,000 tourism-supported jobs. The next lowest, Kentucky, has 192,697 tourism-supported jobs, she said.

Ruby said even taking a small portion of the market share from other states could double the Mountain State’s tourism industry. The Division of Tourism is looking to being more calculating with its advertising campaigns and encouraging more cooperation between counties in their tourism strategies to make that happen, Ruby said.

Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, and House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, said in separate speeches that more pro-business policies and regulatory rollbacks are necessary to keep the state’s economic momentum and encourage more foreign investment.

Armstead specifically pointed to taxes on businesses’ equipment and inventory as a deterrent to economic development. West Virginia is one of 12 states with the business personal property tax, and the tax revenue goes toward schools and public projects.

“If we cannot do it immediately, we will start that process,” Armstead said of eliminating the tax.

Also at the summit, three business leaders were inducted into the West Virginia Business Hall of Fame. The inductees for 2017 are: Charles T. Jones, president and CEO of Amherst Madison, D. Stephen Walker, former president and CEO of Walker Machinery Company, and Robert O. Orders, CEO of Orders Construction Company.

Reach Max Garland at [email protected], 304-348-4886 or follow @MaxGarlandTypes on Twitter.

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