By Autumn Shelton, WV Press Association
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The economic future of West Virginia looks promising. From continued growth in energy and manufacturing sectors, to an increase in tourism and the attraction of highly skilled remote workers, West Virginia is consistently inching down a road of prosperity.
This was the message conveyed by James Bailey, interim Cabinet Secretary of the state’s Department of Commerce, as he spoke before an audience of media personnel during the West Virginia Press Association’s 2022 convention held Aug. 4-6. The theme of the convention was “A Vision For The Future.”
Speaking in line with the theme, Bailey discussed his optimism for the future of both the state and the Department of Commerce.
“I believe we have a bright future and I think there are a lot of indicators, currently, as to why we have a bright future.”
At this time, the state is experiencing record-breaking revenue growth and a $1 billion Rainy Day Fund, which “signals financial stability to everyone in the outside world,” Bailey explained.
“This year alone we have had over $3 billion in economic development investments. It feels like we have a lot of momentum on our side.”
Through the work of agencies within the Department of Commerce and Legislative efforts, the state has been improving the “legal and regulatory environment,” and creating a thriving economy while protecting natural resources, Bailey said.
“We are now recognized by business facilities as the best business climate of all our surrounding states. And we were ranked 10th best business climate in the nation in 2021.”
To continue this trend, Bailey said there are several key items the state is focusing on.
“We have really put a focus on our outdoor adventure opportunities,” Bailey said, adding that about $200 million in investments have been made to improve State Parks, mountain bike trails and fish hatcheries.
Fishing is a $1 billion industry in West Virginia, Bailey stated, noting that this sector of the economy often gets overlooked.
He also stated that responsible timbering practices managed through the Division of Forestry are decreasing the likelihood of forest fires and maintaining wildlife habitats.
Additionally, he said the state is continuing to focus on broadband expansion to attract remote workers.
“We are investing hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars over the next few years . . . to expand high speed broadband access throughout the state,” Bailey noted.
He added that the Ascend WV program has been incredibly successful and that increased net inward migration numbers are good indicators that attracting a remote workforce to the Mountain State is working to improve the economic climate.
For current state residents, officials are looking at ways to increase the state’s workforce participation rate–traditionally one of the lowest rates in the nation.
Workforce WV remains under the banner of the Department of Commerce, Bailey said. And they are working to ensure that it is not just an unemployment agency, but an employment agency.
“The West Virginia worker, particularly in manufacturing jobs, has the lowest turnover rate in the country,” Bailey said. “So once our people get in a job, they feel valued, they are hard workers, and they stay in it–which is a huge attractive factor for employers.”
Officials are also continuing to embrace the state’s energy economy through multiple efforts– including focusing on emerging carbon technologies (such as creating building materials out of coal byproducts), providing advanced manufacturing opportunities (like battery and electric vehicle manufacturing) and continuing work on becoming the possible home of a regional clean hydrogen hub – which would receive funding through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed by Congress in November 2021.
While Bailey said that no news is yet available on West Virginia housing a hydrogen hub, he did explain that it is still a possibility.
“I like our chances,” Bailey noted, adding that the state is “ahead of the game” in its efforts to get a hub. “That could lead to a historic and, literally, transformative development for the state.”
Lastly, Bailey noted that the state is continuing to support entrepreneurship and innovation to keep moving into the future.
“Optimism breeds progress,” Bailey concluded. “We can’t achieve anything if we don’t believe that we can achieve it. And sometimes, in our state, I’m afraid we lose track of that too much. There are a lot of reasons for us to celebrate, and I think we should do that more.”