West Virginia is at a critical moment.
Last January, the Labor Department released an alarming figure: West Virginia is the only state where less than half of citizens work. This statistic made national headlines and was shared widely on social media. Unfortunately, we know these troubles too well: A sharp decline in coal severance tax has reduced state income; our prescription drug epidemic is startling; and young people are leaving the state at an alarming rate. (74 percent of WVU graduates leave within five years.)
Despite glimmers of progress, West Virginia’s communities suffer, and new leaders across business and political sectors have crucial decisions to make. It’s time for us to bet on our people and embrace the knowledge-based economy of our times.
We must realize in West Virginia that place has become the central organizing unit of the 21st century. As Richard Florida points out in his book, “Rise of the Creative Class,” access to creative talent is to modern business what access to coal and iron ore is to steel making. It determines where companies will choose to locate and grow. Carly Fiorina, Republican presidential candidate, told a group of governors when she was CEO of Hewlett-Packard, “you can keep your tax incentives and highway interchanges; we will relocate where the highly skilled people are.”
While we must celebrate and honor our rich history as a state, we must also look to the future with an emphasis on innovation. The U.S. economy has moved from a corporate-centered system to a people-driven one, and West Virginia must do a better job giving our best and our brightest opportunities by mirroring national success stories like Chattanooga, Tennessee — a polluted city with little investment, to a place that has completely transformed through focus on creative entrepreneurship.
As of 2010, the Creative Class comprised more than 40 percent of the workforce in places like San Jose, Durham, Ithaca, and Ann Arbor, according to the Department of Labor. These places are prospering. They are distinguished by the knowledge-based model of economic development that takes shape around innovation and tolerance.
West Virginia, unfortunately, sits at the bottom of the creative list (49th). Bloomberg highlights why this is a problem: “Want to know where a great place to invest in real estate will be five to ten years from now? Look at where artists are living now.”
West Virginia needs to aggressively recruit established corporations, but we must focus on building livable, desirable communities that are attractive to entrepreneurs. We must develop pathways for creative industries, champion our creative young talent, and give them reasons to create and thrive and stay here in West Virginia.
Innovation must be at the center of our path towards revitalization.
The cultivation of West Virginian cultural capital has a two-fold value: It contributes tax dollars to the state while also creating profit-making pieces that reflect the unique character of West Virginia.
Blenko Glass Company, which was established in 1893, is a perfect example of a company that both serves West Virginia through tax revenue and beauty — attracting dollars and exporting a piece that could only be found in our state.
West Virginia is home to some of the best artists in the country: furniture makers, architects, graphic designers, photographers, animators, craft beer and food producers, and gallery owners. These are people like Morgan Richards, a SCAD-educated fashion designer who chose to move back to her home in Charleston to start a luxury leather company, which was recently featured in InStyle magazine. West Virginia creatives promote the best of who we are. They create their own jobs and employ a new workforce. They are not in competition with any other sector, and they help bring West Virginia to the rest of the country — and sometimes the world.
I do not mean to reduce our creative economy to consumer goods (or simply the sale of art for profit’s sake). Art helps us observe and question the world in which we live and gives us ambition to make that world better. As I travel the state, visiting artists and entrepreneurs from Beckley to Huntington, from Harpers Ferry to Wheeling, it is evident that communities that support the arts are simply getting by a little better than those that aren’t.
This was reinforced this past week by Amy Shuler Goodwin, Commissioner of Tourism, who noted: “Visitors most always want to go see art — museums or studios — when visiting West Virginia.”
The bottom line is West Virginia needs a people climate as much as we need a business climate.
The rugged terrain that makes West Virginia so beloved by its many residents is the wellspring of some of its best artists. It also can be a barrier to growth. It is often cited by businesses scouting the area as an obstacle to be overcome. Our mountains and valleys present challenges across many areas crucial to attracting business — from additional costs to build large facilities to inefficiencies involved in transporting goods.
Our mountains and our valleys are also what make West Virginia so unique. What new pathways would open up to us if we prioritized the artists and entrepreneurs thriving in these mountains and valleys? What if these proven drivers of economic growth were celebrated and empowered to work and earn at home, here in West Virginia?
Alissa Novoselick is the executive director of the Tamarack Foundation, tamarackfoundation.org.