By MAX GARLAND
As the cost of living rises in major cities and their economies continue to be crowded with young, ambitious entrepreneurs, more millennials will see rural life as an appealing alternative. They just have to know where to look.
That’s the theory posed by Rebecca Kimmons and Corey Zinn, two members of the community development group Create West Virginia. Since August, Kimmons and Zinn have been traveling throughout the state, recording the stories of people who migrated to West Virginia and have found success with their newfound business ventures.
“We wanted to tell the story of the West Virginia we know is here, but doesn’t necessarily get a lot of press,” Kimmons said. “We’ve seen a lot of people all over the state who do remarkable things and are tremendously engaged. And people are going to see their stories.”
The stories will be compiled into a 68-page publication called “The Maker’s Guide to Opportunity,” which launches in February. Roughly 35,000 copies will be distributed in seven major cities: Boston, Brooklyn, Chicago, Denver, Portland, San Francisco and Seattle, with the goal of attracting millennials and those ready to start fresh with a second career.
Kimmons estimates close to 100,000 people will lay their eyes on the publication, but she said the success rate won’t be perfect. It’s not supposed to be.
“We’re looking for people who are makers and have a drive to build community,” she said. “We don’t want 10 million people. We just want the percentage of people who understand what we’ve got here.”
What West Virginia has compared to California, New York and other major states is a lower cost of living. According to data compiled by the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center, West Virginia had the 18th-lowest cost of living index in the third quarter of 2016. Kimmons and Zinn are betting on real estate advertisements in the publication to catch the eyes of people looking to start businesses.
“If you go to West Virginia, you don’t have to struggle to even make the first payments on a building, or something that you started,” Zinn said. “Instead, you’re able to focus on your idea.”
Besides rent, the state has the advantage of smaller networks wherever entrepreneurs decide to settle, according to Natalie Roper, the executive director of Generation West Virginia. This means it’s easier to make important connections within the area and there is less of a chance of someone entering an oversaturated market.
But these benefits have not been enough to attract or retain much young talent in the state so far. Jobs aren’t easy to come by. The state economy is struggling to diversify as the energy sector continues to change, and young people are leaning toward the major cities Create West Virginia is targeting as their best path forward.
According to data from 2015 American Community Survey estimates, 2.48 percent of people with a bachelor’s degree or higher moved into West Virginia, below the national average of 3.54 percent. Those estimates also have 4.35 percent of people with a bachelor’s degree or higher moving out of West Virginia, above the national average of 3.68 percent.
“It’s true that more educated people tend to move more readily to where there is greater economic opportunity, and that tends to be in more heavily urbanized areas,” said Eric Bowen, a research assistant professor at West Virginia University.
“People my age are leaving our state in droves, and the rate at which this is happening is only going to increase unless we do something about it,” said Evans, who graduated from Concord University in May.
Kimmons said more recent college graduates throughout the country would be drawn to West Virginia if its success stories were more prominently displayed.
She noted examples popular with West Virginians, such as Mountain Stage with Larry Groce and the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame, but also more recent ones she discovered while traveling for the publication.
There’s Michael Cline, who runs a coffee shop in Logan called Hot Cup. He saw two Starbucks locations across from each other while visiting friends in Ohio, and decided he could do something better and more creative in West Virginia.
There’s the story of HardyNet, a subsidiary of Hardy Telecommunications, which provides broadband services to Hardy County and surrounding areas, paving the way for entrepreneurs from Washington, D.C., to pursue their own business ventures with high-speed broadband access. West Virginia as a whole lags behind most states in broadband connectivity.
And there’s the untapped potential of the small town of Matewan in Mingo County, which Kimmons says is ripe for development with real estate available and plenty of natural beauty.
Zinn, a 24-year-old WVU graduate, said bringing these stories to a wider audience is not just important for drawing in people from the big cities to West Virginia. He said they will also have “The Maker’s Guide to Opportunity” available online and publications for West Virginians to read for themselves.
“I think if people here took the time to look for these stories, they would start to look at their own state a little differently,” he said.
For now, Zinn is staying in Charleston while many of his peers are looking elsewhere. He remains concerned about large energy companies driving the economy, but he also thinks there is some entrepreneurial upside people may not account for when they think of West Virginia.
“If we can get 10 people who are the right fit because of the publication, we’ll be doing what we want to do,” he said. “We’ve already seen a small number of people make a difference in communities across West Virginia, so we just need to add on to that.”
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