2016-11-16 / Front Page

Manchin talks Trump, development, jobs and politics with regional leaders here

by Kate Shunney

Senator Joe Manchin talks to regional officials and planners at a Region 9 Planning and Development meeting Monday, November 14 at the Angus & Ale in Berkeley Springs. Bath mayor Scott Merki sits to his right. Senator Joe Manchin talks to regional officials and planners at a Region 9 Planning and Development meeting Monday, November 14 at the Angus & Ale in Berkeley Springs. Bath mayor Scott Merki sits to his right. U.S. Senator Joe Manchin got an earful of requests from regional planners and economic development officials on Monday, November 14 at the Region 9 Planning and Development Council meeting held in Berkeley Springs.

Roughly two dozen officials, including mayors and commissioners from across the Eastern Panhandle met at the lunch event to discuss progress on transportation projects, grants and other planning efforts.

A proposed Mountaineer Gas distribution line was among the projects discussed, and Senator Manchin urged leaders to look for ways to move the infrastructure project forward.

Bath mayor Scott Merki welcomed the group and drew their attention to recent Streetscapes improvements in town and work on the Berkeley Springs train depot. Merki thanked Sen. Manchin for his role in getting CSX to turn the former railyard over to the town for future public use.

Executive Director Bill Clark said grants and federal funding in the region have created tangible results, as have local efforts to grow business.

“Our local investments have paid dividends,” Clark said, pointing to the purchase of property along I-81 by Berkeley County – land that is now becoming home to Proctor & Gamble’s new plant.

Jefferson County Development Director John Reisenweber said the Western Potomac Economic Partnership (WESTPEP) will keep marketing the Eastern Panhandle as a place to do business.

“Marketing regionally makes a lot of sense,” he said.

Senator Manchin advised leaders gathered at the meeting to pinpoint their top priority projects.

“For the entire region, look at your number one project – how long has it been in the works, what’s been the biggest impediment?”

Several times he advised leaders to identify their biggest challenges and then ask for policy waivers or federal help to overcome them.

Manchin anticipates, under president-elect Trump, a return to state-level governing, rather than federal funding and policy.

Leaders can use that change to their advantage, he said.

“What we have to do is come together as a country and give him every chance to succeed,” Manchin said of Donald Trump.

The senator said governorelect Jim Justice “will do a great job” and is focused on job creation.

Preparing a workforce for those jobs is West Virginia’s biggest hurdle, said Manchin.

“Workforce participation is our biggest challenge – we have the lowest workforce participation,” he said.

Manchin said his office has held 14 job fairs around the state that have attracted large employers looking for workers.

“There are plenty of jobs in West Virginia. We just can’t find people to work them,” he said.

Lack of skills, addiction and incarceration are three top reasons for the shortage of qualified workers in the state, Manchin said.

He proposed two solutions – a “second chance” program for non-violent offenders that would require drug treatment and mentoring, and a tax on every milligram of opiates sold in the country.

Manchin said he tells young people that America is defeating itself.

“There’s not another country that can beat us. Nobody can compete with our economy. They don’t have to. They’ll just wait until you become uneducated and addicted,” he said.

Broadband, natural gas

Manchin asked Morgan Broadband executive Ron Martin if high speed broadband is available locally, and what the main challenge is for spreading that service widely.

Martin said his company has trouble finding affordable space on private towers in the region, but has the equipment to provide the service.

Reisenweber told Manchin that a proposed Mountaineer Gas distribution line project is expected to be approved by the West Virginia Public Service District, but has hit some public opposition.

Manchin asked if local residents are opposed to the line or just don’t want it to run across their property.

Reisenweber said the project has both kinds of detractors – some who are opposed to fossil fuels in general and others directly affected by line construction. He said Jefferson County has no natural gas and has lost several economic prospects because of that.

“P&G has basically tapped out the gas capacity,” he said.

“People don’t want any type of inconvenience on their property,” Manchin said. He suggested the state could consider investing in the Mountaineer Gas project.

“If the state becomes involved, it’s a public project and with eminent domain you can move on it when you need to,” said the senator.

He said the state would get good investment returns on energy transmission and transportation projects. Manchin raised the prospect of individual counties partnering with Mountaineer Gas to move the project ahead.

“Y’all are going to get push back. We’re elected to make decisions for what’s best for the state,” Manchin said.

Reisenweber said Manchin’s help would be needed when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is asked to approve a connecting gas line from Pennsylvania through Maryland and into West Virginia in northern Morgan County.

“I can assure you that FERC is going to change under the new administration, which is a good thing,” said Manchin.

“I would say it’s going to be pretty interesting, the first 100 days,” said the senator of a Trump presidency. “Things will move quickly.”

He predicted that EPA regulations would be “the first to go” under Trump.

More local concerns

Manchin asked about progress on two buildings that were burned in downtown Berkeley Springs last April.

Mayor Scott Merki said stabilization of the next building began Monday and there has been interest in the property once the burned buildings are demolished.

“It’s been one and a half years of setbacks,” he said.

Manchin said truck traffic was once a major issue in Morgan County, and the solution could still be making U.S. 522 a toll road.

“You have 75% out-of-state traffic, but it’s very unpopular,” he said of tolls.

He again urged local leaders to identify barriers to their public projects and ask state and federal leaders for waivers of regulations that might get in the way.

Manchin also said the governor elect has “connections that can open doors” for economic development projects in the state, and he urged leaders to use those connections.

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