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News-Register Column: Flat land and economic growth

By Mike Myer

The News-Register

State Secretary of Commerce Keith Burdette told legislators last month the big reason businesses don’t come here isn’t taxes, regulations or lack of an educated workforce.

It’s the dearth of flat land in the Mountain State.

Really, that’s no surprise. Why try to construct a plant in the West Virginia hills when other nearby states have lots of nice, flat terrain to offer?

So, what do we do about it? We do not throw up our hands and bemoan our cruel topographic fate. Surely there’s something we can do to at least mitigate the problem.

There is some flat land in the state. Most of the level sites not occupied are in the Eastern Panhandle – and it’s no coincidence that’s where economic development successes have occurred during recent years.

But there may be options in other regions, such as ours. One is the brownfields approach, used with some success in the Northern Panhandle to redevelop old steel mill (and, in Moundsville, glass factory) sites. State officials ought to be inventorying such land and ensuring that where environmental cleanup is needed, it is accomplished as soon as possible so that if a manufacturer expresses interest, we won’t have to ask if he’ll wait a couple of years until we have the soil cleaned up. He won’t.

What about vacant, unpolluted land the owners of which want higher purchase or lease prices than new companies are willing to pay? Well, we cough up all sorts of tax incentives to bring businesses into the state. Why not similar incentives for landowners to make it easier for them to cut the prices they ask for their properties?

There simply have to be other innovative ways of addressing the terrain problem. It’s up to state officials – perhaps with a little legislative tinkering with the statute books – to find solutions.

Hillary Clinton and “any Republican” got the headlines from a new political poll in West Virginia – but that isn’t why Mountain State politicians ought to be scratching their heads.

Orion Strategies conducted the polling, asking a variety of very interesting questions. I could have told them how respondents would answer the query that received the most publicity: Just 26 percent said they’d vote for Hillary Clinton for president. Better, 58 percent believed, would be any Republican candidate.

But the poll covered state politics, too, though responses raised more questions than they answered. According to Orion, of the more than 400 people questioned, “61 percent believe that things in West Virginia are not headed in the right direction.”

OK. But what, exactly, does that mean? Were poll respondents talking about the direction in which the state has been going for decades – or after the hard right turn taken earlier this year when Republicans took over the Legislature?

Is it a signal conservatives think lawmakers aren’t moving quickly enough – or of a Democrat backlash against what has been done?

Is it a complaint about what President Barack Obama’s administration has done to the state? Or does it have less to do with politics than with poll respondents’ personal circumstances?

So how are candidates for governor to read the poll? Quite possibly, not at all. The leading contenders have done and will do their own polling to gauge voters’ sentiments.

A couple of questions validated those who have said that even in West Virginia, one of the most socially conservative states in the union, a shift in attitudes is occurring. Twenty-eight percent of poll respondents agree with the Supreme Court’s ruling allowing same-sex couples to marry. Still, 66 percent don’t like the idea.

Another question was, frankly, a real shocker: Thirty-six percent of respondents think Planned Parenthood should receive government funding. Only a slim majority, 54 percent, said no.

Myer can be reached at [email protected].

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