By FRED PACE
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — West Virginia University President E. Gordon Gee told state business leaders Thursday this is a critical time in the state’s history as it lags behind a growing national economy.
To help address the issue, Gee unveiled a comprehensive study of how to address economic issues and put the state on the road to prosperity.
Speaking at the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce’s 81st Annual Meeting and Business Summit at The Greenbrier, Gee said, “The people who dwell among these magnificent hills and hollows deserve lives as soaring and strong as our landscape. They deserve the economic security, stellar education and first-rate healthcare that would allow them to approach life’s starting line on even footing with all Americans.”
“Together, we have blazed a path that we call ‘West Virginia Forward,'” he said. “And this path has three objectives. First, we need to reinforce the foundation that supports economic growth, including our infrastructure, talent base and business climate. The second objective is to identify potential sectors in which West Virginia can grow to diversify our economy. And, finally, we must draw a clear road map, helping partners around the state navigate these new pathways toward our shared destination: A prosperous West Virginia.”
“We can solve our problems, but we have to start right here and right now,” Gee added.
Marshall University President Jerome A. Gilbert said he is a firm believer that higher education should remove obstacles and present opportunities.
“West Virginia Forward is a perfect example of that,” Gilbert said. “We’re excited about this collaboration with WVU and the Department of Commerce, and about the opportunity to bring university and state resources to the table to attract manufacturing, small businesses and high-tech industry to our state.”
“The West Virginia Forward initiative has the potential to make a real and lasting impact on the future of West Virginia and our economy,” said West Virginia Secretary of Commerce Woody Thrasher. “The collaboration between the Department of Commerce, West Virginia University and Marshall University is crucial for attracting new opportunities as well as educating and retaining a talented workforce in the Mountain State.”
The study was conducted by McKinsey & Co.
The study led to discoveries that Gee said could change the state’s future.
“West Virginia has many robust industries that we can grow, such as aerospace maintenance, automotive parts manufacturing and metals manufacturing,” Gee said.
“The state also has sectors that are growing more slowly here than nationally, but where we can succeed is by differentiating ourselves from the competition. One area is downstream oil and gas manufacturing, specifically in carbon-fiber-reinforced plastics and fine chemicals.
“New sectors the state can capture that promise high growth are cybersecurity, cloud services and data centers, and higher-end tourism,” he said. “And two areas that create distinct opportunities in West Virginia are the life sciences and automotive assembly.”
To accomplish these goals, however, Gee said much work must be done to make West Virginia attractive, such as improving infrastructure, including better broadband access; changes in tax law; realignment of the state Department of Commerce to create a one-stop shop that aligns current resources with business needs and directs businesses to the right offices for help; and addressing work force issues, including education and drug addiction.
“Our next steps include asking each stakeholder to undertake projects to solve these problems and implement these recommendations,” he said. “For example, the state will work to attract anchor companies in cybersecurity, while other partners invest in cybersecurity talent and creating the environment where cybersecurity businesses can succeed.
“At West Virginia University, I commit that we will focus on innovation and research, local business support, talent expansion and alumni outreach,” Gee said, adding that the university will soon sign a memorandum of understanding with Marshall and the Commerce Department on various responsibilities.
“Our state is crying out for change, but change does not mean shifting funds around or raising our ranks in quality-of-life polls,” Gee said. “Change means elevating our vision of what is possible. It means recognizing our assets and exploring new opportunities for growth. Above all, it means abandoning our negative state self-image.”
Gee said those with additional ideas, or who wish to get involved, should send an email to [email protected].
“In this pivotal moment, we must embrace our strengths and tackle our problems in the firm faith that we can make a difference,” he said. “In a time when society seems more fragmented than ever, we are all working toward the same goal.”
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