CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, has announced an initiative to revitalize southern West Virginia.
Flanked by other state senators Thursday morning in Charleston, Kessler announced the creation of a Senate task force as part of the S.C.O.R.E. initiative, which stands for Southern Coalfields Organizing and Revitalizing the Economy.
The initiative aims to provide economic opportunities in areas which have suffered from job losses and economic hardships primarily due to losses in the coal industry.
The program is based off Kentucky’s S.O.A.R. initiative, Shaping our Appalachian Region, which seeks to revitalize similar areas in eastern Kentucky.
“Southern West Virginia has become a region stricken with a lack of opportunity and hope,” Kessler said. “It’s time to change our way of thinking so that it can once again become a region that offers our children and grandchildren opportunities for a better future. It is not impossible to envision a renewed Southern West Virginia.”
Kessler said many of those communities have been dependent on a single industry, and as that industry has struggled, so have the communities.
“Layoffs and mine closings have become almost routine events,” Kessler said. “This is a time when communities need and deserve serious attention and action from our government officials. It’s one thing to say that we care about these communities. It’s something else to push for a new way of thinking in order to address the issues facing them.”
Kessler said his intention is not to signal the end of coal in West Virginia, but rather to help communities historically dependent on the industry to look at ways to diversify their economies.
“I don’t want to just sit around and wait for an ultimate outcome on the war on coal,” he said. “I think we need to act now.”
Kessler pointed to the northern part of the state which historically was very dependent on the state’s steel industry. As factories closed or reduced employment and production, those communities struggled to find new businesses and industry.
“What I want to make sure is we don’t put all of our eggs in one basket,” he said. “I want to make sure that, at the state level at least, we are doing everything we can to support and revitalize our communities.”
Kessler said one step the state could take now would be to put more funding into tourism.
“We’ve got some significant tourism attractions in the southern part of the state,” he said. “But what I heard repeatedly at the recent tourism conference was white water rafting is down 50 percent, and they say it’s due to a reduction in their budget. They don’t have the money for advertising and it’s costing them.
“If you’ve got a garden that is growing and blooming, you keep watering the garden. You don’t starve it. I think we’ve kind of strangled tourism in those areas through budget cuts. Restoring that funding, that’s something we can do now as a quick fix.”
Other areas of consideration for the S.C.O.R.E. initiative would include education and workforce development, increasing broadband access and support for clean coal research and development, he said.
Kessler said the first phase will be for the Senate task force to tour southern counties and reach out to residents.
“The first part really is the listening tour,” he said. “Then the senators can bring back concrete ideas and plans for consideration during the legislative session.
Members of the senate task force are:
Kessler, ex-officio; Art Kirkendoll, D-Logan, co-chairman; Mike Green, D-Raleigh, co-chairman; Clark Barnes, R-Randolph; Truman Chafin, D-Mingo; Daniel Hall, D-Wyoming; Mike Hall, R-Putnam; Bill Laird, D-Fayette; Ron Miller, D-Greenbrier; Bob Plymale, D-Wayne; Ron Stollings, D-Boone; Greg Tucker, D-Nicholas; and Chris Walters, R-Kanawha.