As a proud native of Nitro and a long time homeowner in the Eastern Panhandle, I have both a profound love for the state and a deep concern about its future.
Let me begin with a disclaimer: I’m not interested in promoting or criticizing any candidate or party. Like most West Virginians, I’m tired of political rancor. I want a stronger state with a broader, deeper economic base. Trying to assign blame or credit for our current situation is a total waste of time.
I believe West Virginia is at a critical crossroads. From the 1940s through the early 1970s, West Virginia’s economy and the national economy were closely aligned. Coal mines and factories in the state played a critical role in both the Allied victory in World War II and America’s post-war economic expansion. My parents’ generation took rightful pride that they helped build this country. And they did.
For the past four decades, however, the state’s influence — and its promise — have been in a steep decline. As a result of global competition, countless chemical factories in the Kanawha Valley, steel mills in the Northern Panhandle and coal mines in the southern part of the state have disappeared. We can debate the causes and fight over who is to blame, but the one thing that’s undeniable is that these jobs are not coming back.
The forces of change that have hollowed out West Virginia’s traditional manufacturing and mining industries will never be reversed.
To be fair, great progress has been made on many fronts. WVU is a treasure. Its academic standards are excellent and the University’s health system is one of the state’s crown jewels. The technology industries that have located around Clarksburg have revived the region. The Eastern Panhandle offers great promise as evidenced by the announcement last year by Procter and Gamble that it will build a $500 million facility near Martinsburg.
Looking at West Virginia from the vantage point of my home in Washington, D.C., I worry that the state’s image is undermining its future. To the vast majority of Americans who have no firsthand experience in West Virginia, the national portrayal of the state is highly negative. The picture of West Virginia in the news is a place of natural disasters, manufacturing mishaps, political scandals and extremists advocating coal at any cost. This is not the West Virginia I know.
Criticizing the media may feel good, but it will do nothing to change the narrative. As West Virginians, if we want to project a more balanced and enticing image, we have to do more than complain. We have to give the nation’s media a compelling new story to report. Here are three recommendations I have for changing the country’s perspective on our state.
First, although many will scoff, we need a modern branding campaign. West Virginia has to be “reintroduced” to the world. This won’t happen by accident. It can only be done with a dedicated team of professionals who are tasked with telling a new, authentic and surprising story — on a daily basis. The campaign should utilize all available story telling platforms — traditional news outlets, reality shows, movies, documentaries, ESPN, YouTube, to name only a few.
The point would be to put West Virginia in context — not to try to convince everybody that we are something we aren’t. We need to show that West Virginia is a place of extraordinary natural beauty where values matter, hard work is the norm, creativity exists in abundance and surprising opportunities abound. One more thought. This campaign could be done very affordably as there are plenty of state alums in the marketing and communications arena who would gladly sign up to help for little or no compensation. Count me as one.
Second, West Virginia should assume the role of the clear national leader in the fight against two of the most threatening health challenges of our day: drug abuse and obesity.
These are national and international problems that are all too familiar to West Virginia families. The state should double down on its efforts to fight these twin scourges. Increase public funding. Call on the private sector to step up. Demand more help from Washington. And seek the advice and counsel of the best academic institutions and non-profit organizations in the country. Make this the highest priority in the state.
If West Virginia can make meaningful progress on these two intractable challenges, hundreds of thousands of lives will be saved and the state will be widely recognized and appreciated for its leadership.
Third, we can’t grow the state’s economy without growing the state’s population base. In my lifetime the nation’s population has more than doubled while West Virginia has remained flat. This is a guaranteed formula for irrelevance.
My admittedly radical idea is for the state to open its borders to immigration. We need more people. And we need a population base that is more diverse.
There will be those who laugh or scream at this idea. But we need to get the state going, and we also need to demonstrate that West Virginia is a place of hope and promise for people of all backgrounds, beliefs and ethnicity.
I love West Virginia. I also worry about its future. My ideas may not gain any traction, but this much I know for sure. The most that we can imagine doing to change the direction of the state will be the least that it will take to build a promising future for our children. We need to get started.
Dan McGinn is CEO and founder of McGinn and Company in Arlington, Va. He is one of the nation’s leading reputation strategists, firstname.lastname@example.org.