EVERY 17 years or so, like the arrival of buzzing cicadas, some group pops up to announce a comprehensive update of Who Owns WestVirginia.This is the state and county-by-county compilation of the top landowners in West Virginia.The hoary Who Owns West Virginia enterprise, nearly 40 years old, should be trademarked, with residuals going to its originator, a now-retired Huntington newspaper reporter. (Just who owns the Who Owns West Virginia franchise?)To compile these rankings takes a lot of poring through county assessor records, for sure.The vast expenditure of time is about all that distinguishes the resulting lists in importance from the National League standings or the adjusted cost of buying the gifts itemized in the Twelve Days of Christmas. (Four colly birds will run you about $45 plus tax.)This time, the left-leaning West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy and the American Friends Service Committee report that, again, large out-of-state timber and mineral companies own large (no, make that very large) tracts of timber and mineral lands. Upon hearing this news again, we are supposed to collectively shake our heads in sadness.
The Who Owns West Virginia kind of conclusions is akin to the information that the Ford Motor Co. has big factories that make lots of cars and trucks and that Coke outsells Pepsi. (What? You didn't know?)I am far more fascinated to learn from the current edition that Hancock County's largest landowner is the Fairview Presbyterian Church.With 4,324 acres, the congregation owns 6.5 percent of the surface in that county, edging out the horse track and the steel mill in their landholdings. Can the Presbyterians of New Cumberland thus be charged asoligarchs?
The Webster County 4H Club, controlling 4,377 acres, is one of the top landowners there. At least one H now stands for Hegemony. A telling indicator of vitality in Wirt County is that the No. 4 landowner there is Oak Hill Plaza Pizza Hut Inc. Imagine the pie chart illustration.The report's authors want us to bemoan the current revelation that none of the state's top 10 landowners is headquartered in West Virginia. This fact, unchanged since the dawn of time, is supposed to negatively reflect on the out-of-state capitalists that control West Virginia's natural resources.I disagree. Whether businesses choose to come or stay in West Virginia, or whether West Virginia capitalists leave the state, reveals much more about the comparative appeal of our tax system, laws and regulations and public and private infrastructure.People who have wealth or who are able to create wealth, native born or not, can deploy their capital anywhere in the world, faster and further than ever before. Its free flow has little to do with hard and immovable assets such as land, or where you live.
The great flaw of the Who Owns West Virginia report is that it is a small question. Land alone is an 18th century measure of wealth. The federal government owns nearly all of desolate Nevada. Las Vegas has had its ups and downs.Yet, that desert city, with barely enough water to survive, is drawing billions in capital and thousands of jobs from neighboring high-tax, high-regulation California at the highest rate ever. That tells me something.Hong Kong, with seven million people, has a land area half that of Kanawha County. The comparisons end right precisely there, don't they?The Who Owns West Virginia rankings of landowners remind me of other obsolete markers of prosperity. The World Almanac would report annual postal receipts and the number of tall buildings. Cities would boast about these statistics. The Appert Gift Wrap Indicator forecast year-end holiday sales based on wholesale paper orders inAugust.The cows and pigs and crop acres that a farmer owned used to be numbers to brag about. Most people today would rather have shares not of apple orchards but of Apple stock.
Land, of course, is important. Who owns it? Not so much. More important is what land is used for. If conditions call for the productive use of land in West Virginia, then that will happen. The best question is how to make it so.Mark Sadd, former Daily Mail business editor, is a Charleston attorney.