OPINION: Finding West Virginia’s path of recovery

The Huntington Herald-Dispatch reported on Monday that West Virginia’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research has issued their annual “Economic Outlook” report, and the takeaways are “familiar business woes.”

Director John Deskins, who has delivered this annual recap of West Virginia’s economic health for many years, isn’t in the business of making things look rosier than they are. We’ve sat in on six or seven of his “Economic Outlook” visits here to Berkeley Springs in the company of elected officials and business leaders. Year after year, the list of challenges has remained essentially the same:

–West Virginia’s economy is too dependent on a small number of industries, like coal and chemicals, and needs to diversify.

–West Virginia’s workforce participation is too low… many state residents simply aren’t working at all.

–Workers in West Virginia lack the higher-level education or technical skills to fill the jobs that new manufacturers will bring.

–Substance use disorder and drug overdoses are crippling a portion of West Virginia’s population that could be working, starting businesses and building a new economy.

–The only growth in the state’s population is in people over age 65. West Virginia is not retaining or attracting young people within its borders.

On Monday, Governor Jim Justice came to town for a few items of state business, including campaigning against Amendment 2 on the November ballot.

Justice said, basically, that voters shouldn’t trust their elected legislators in Charleston to manage tax revenue, or distribute it fairly to counties.

He did take credit for the state’s big revenue surpluses lately, and the attraction of several large manufacturing companies to West Virginia.

As he closed his speech, he returned to one of his frequent themes – that the people of West Virginia are salt of the earth, hard-working and good people, and that our state is a “diamond” that’s been overlooked for too long.

We agree with that.

But as the Economic Outlook report has said for years, West Virginia’s success has to be an inside job.

We can wait for outside companies to “pick” us, and for people to decide this is the place they want to be.

Our future outlook very much depends on West Virginians’ willingness to welcome new ideas, support young entrepreneurs and a culture of innovation. We have to champion education and trade skills, expand internet access and adopt new technologies.

Finally – and this is not optional – we must do the real work to push drug use away from our young people. We cannot afford to lose another generation that way.

Children and teens have to see and hear us choosing healthier ways of living, coping and growing – over and over again — so those habits become their norm. And they have to hear us support recovery work, so they know there’s always a path back to health. The state’s future quite literally depends upon that.