Last October, Columbia Natural Resources' officials gave Jay Burford a choice: Move to Ohio or find another job. Burford looked around at thedeclining neighborhoods of the Kanawha Valley and chose Ohio. "Everything just seems to be falling away," Burford said. "With all the
tuff that's going on with Union Carbide and us. ..." NiSource bought Columbia Gas Transmission and Columbia Natural Resources last year, one of several recent mergers in Charleston. Burford
heard about the Columbia merger in June, and knew right away his accounting job could be eliminated.NiSource managers outlined "Project Compass" - a four-month look at every administrative position in Charleston - to determine how many jobs they could eliminate. Burford talked to his wife, Jennifer. They decided that if he lost his job they would move to another state with their 1-year-old son, Sam. Their decision to move was complex, like the end of a turbulent marriage. Jay and Jennifer love West Virginia. That's one of the first things they'll tell you. They're scared to leave, but even more scared to tay. "You look in the newspaper here and you might find five or six decent jobs," Burford said. "In the field that I chose, I thought it'd be a lot easier to make better money. That's not the case. At least, not around here." Corporate shake-ups The Burfords are part of a larger exodus from Kanawha County. In 1999, 1,663 more people moved out of Kanawha County than moved in. That's more than double the number who left in 1994. More than 37,000 taxpayers left West Virginia in 1998-99, according to migration data from the Internal Revenue Service. Their favorite destination was Ohio, followed by Virginia and North Carolina. During that time, more than 6,500 taxpayers moved from West Virginia to the Buckeye State. Charleston Mayor Jay Goldman blames corporate shake-ups and consolidations for the many "For Sale" signs dotting neighborhoods like the Burfords' near St. Albans. Without effort, Goldman can rattle off a dozen former industrial giants that have either closed or dramatically reduced their payroll. "We've lost our industrial base. People have to wake up and realize the world has changed, and we haven't changed with it." Last February, West Virginia's largest bank, One Valley, became BB&T. About 80 workers in Charleston lost their jobs at the bank. Across the state, almost 300 people left the bank. Thirty people moved to BB&T's headquarters in North Carolina. Also last year, Union Carbide workers heard that Michigan-based Dow Chemical wanted to buy their company. More than 2,500 Carbide workers are till waiting to hear if they'll lose their job once the merger is approved, which is expected at the end of March. Last summer, NiSource Chairman Gary Neale predicted he would cut one-third of his newly acquired Charleston work force, about 200 of the 700 employees. After a face-to-face, closed-door meeting with Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., Neale lowered the number. About 60 people, including Burford, lost their job in Charleston. In October, NiSource managers told Burford and 20 other people in his accounting department that they had one week to decide whether to take a job with the company in Ohio. Burford was one of four who accepted the relocation. NiSource gave him a promotion for accepting. The company will also pay for the couple's moving expenses and home-buying closing costs. This pring, he'll start his new job. Mountains to cornfields Jay and Jennifer, both 26, met at St. Albans High School and went to West Virginia State College together. They married during their junior year in college. He graduated as a certified public accountant. She majored in nuclear medicine, but stays at home with Sam during the day. The St. Albans area is the only place the Burfords have lived. Their 1,300-square-foot house off Coal River Road is for sale for $69,900. Inside their small house, they bump into each other during frozen pizza dinners. Across the street, a neighbor has several boats parked in his front yard. "We're out of the city limits and you can't get any help, you know, when dogs are barking or people don't mow their grass. There's nothing you can do," Jennifer said. In Columbus, they will live in a four-bedroom, 2,200-square-foot house with cathedral ceilings. Their subdivision has a stone pillar entrance and a sign that says: "Reserve at Ashbrook." It's surrounded by rolling hills waiting to be carved into other subdivisions with $200,000 homes. Jennifer likes the new house and Ashbrook's homeowners association. She welcomes the strict rules about fences, paint and yards. If they stayed in St. Albans, Sam would go to Lakeview Elementary. But Lakeview Elementary is one of the schools in Kanawha County that's scheduled to close because old people in St. Albans now far outnumber children. In Columbus, "they're building new schools all around," Jay said. "They sent us all the statistics on passing rates, and it's wonderful ... in our town it's like 93 percent," Jennifer said. Jay's biggest worry about the move is that Jennifer will be lonely. He will have to work overtime at his new job. Their parents and all their friends live in St. Albans. Several times a week, Jennifer totes Sam to his grandparents' house. "Big to me is scary," Jennifer said. "I like that it's a small town and a lot of people know each other and in high school you knew everybody." Jay will miss West Virginia's forests and rivers where he hunts and fishes for trout. Unlike his wife, he's not enamored with the fresh-cut lawns of Columbus. "It's amazing to see the cornfields turn into ubdivisions. It's a little strange," Jay said. "I don't really like the crowds." One day maybe they might move back to the Mountain State, Jay said. "If they had more high-paying jobs. Focus on bringing more young people here and keeping the young people here ..." his voice trailed off. "The same old story you always hear." To contact staff writer Kelly Regan, use e-mail or call 348-5163.