State leaders and some big names from outside West Virginia had a frank conversation Wednesday as they discussed what the state needs in order to diversify its economy, attract growing industries and foster small businesses in the Mountain State.
The speakers at the event, which was sponsored by Techconnect West Virginia and held at the Bridge Valley Community & Technical College in South Charleston, included gubernatorial candidate Bill Cole, Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette, leaders from West Virginia University and Marshall University and the CEOs of major information technology companies.
There was one basic message throughout the entire event: West Virginia needs to make public and private investments in order to be successful in moving forward.
“I know we have challenges. I know there are struggles. I know there is a transition underway,” said Brad Smith, the CEO of Intuit. “But for us to get there, we are going to have to embrace change. We are going to have to lean into the unknown.”
Smith, a native of Kenova, is a Marshall University graduate and CEO of a major company that manages financial software like Turbo Tax. On Wednesday, the successful business executive told the crowd that there were three things West Virginia needs: investment in education, modern infrastructure and local entrepreneurs.
The legislative and political debate in the state has continued to center around somehow resurrecting coal markets that most economists believe will never return to full strength, especially in southern West Virginia where seams of coal have been mined for more than 100 years.
In contrast, all of the panel discussions Wednesday remained focused on finding a path forward by building the workforce and infrastructure needed to attract and grow businesses that are expected to expand in the coming decades, namely technology companies.
Even Cole, the Republican candidate for governor, whose party has led the campaign against President Barack Obama’s regulations on carbon emissions, suggested that it was time for West Virginia to seriously look for other business opportunities.
“West Virginia is at a critical juncture, because of a very effective war on our coal industry. We have finally been driven to diversification,” Cole said. “It’s not too late for West Virginia, but there has never been a more critical time right now to realign our job training and our technical education programs and become laser focused on careers in technology.”
Cole specifically referenced the need to improve high-speed broadband access throughout the state, which ranks below much of the nation for Internet connectivity and speeds.
“This is not something that we have the luxury of delaying,” Cole said. “Building out this network must begin right now. We need the private sector, government, non-profit and educational institutions to all come together to make this a reality for West Virginia.”
Cole, who is the president of the West Virginia Senate, did not state whether his reference to government efforts to improve broadband should include public financing for middle-mile fiber networks that would allow new Internet providers to bring competition to rural areas of the state.
A bill that would have helped finance such projects died in the Republican-led House of Delegates earlier this year.
One thing was clear, however. If something doesn’t change in terms of broadband access in West Virginia, many of the speakers believe the state will have a hard time attracting the technology companies that could help diversify the economy.
As Smith pointed out a large portion of the state and its residents still don’t have access to reliable broadband access, and without it there is no chance of them being able to profit from modern business opportunities. He emphasized that West Virginia’s rough and remote geography wouldn’t be a limiting factor if you could get fiber-optic connections into rural areas.
“Connectivity levels the playing field,” Smith said. “The world is no longer in the ground. It’s in the clouds. For us to be able to capitalize on everything that is happening through the Internet and the pervasive opportunities ahead of it, we have to have broadband connectivity.”
During her turn speaking, Joyce McConnell, the provost of West Virginia University, said that technological improvements need to be made alongside more investment and enhancement of the state’s primary and higher education systems.
“We’re really struggling in this state with education,” McConnell. “There is a lot of joint work going on right now to try to improve the educational system, to make sure the educational system gets funded and to make sure that there is broadband, because a lot of learning depends on what we do with broadband.”
That same point was made by Cole in his opening remarks.
“Our new economy cannot succeed without a capable trained workforce and that must begin in our classrooms today,” Cole said.
What wasn’t mentioned were the large cuts in education spending that have been made by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and state legislators in recent years, or how the state can improve workforce training opportunities when lawmakers won’t approve a budget that includes increased revenue from new taxes on cigarettes or anything else.
Without placing a priority on science and technology education, Smith said young West Virginians won’t be as well prepared as their counterparts in other states or other countries to compete for jobs.
“Just as we learned to write in cursive, they have to learn to write code and build apps, because that is the future we live in and our small businesses have to have the same capabilities,” Smith said.
Joe Maxwell, the CEO of Fintech Growth Fund and another West Virginia native, said it isn’t impossible for West Virginia to have a resurgence in their economy, but it will require people to be forward thinking.
“Tennessee in the past 25 years wasn’t in too different of a shape than West Virginia,” said Maxwell, whose investment firm is based in Nashville.
Maxwell added that there are currently 40 plus cranes simultaneously erecting businesses in Nashville, but he said the city didn’t get there by looking backwards.
“If you’re single threaded, it means you’ve got your blinders on and you are going to miss the biggest opportunity in the world,” he said. “If you’re so blind and monotonic that you’re focused on some agenda, instead of opening the blinds, then you are going to miss a lot of opportunity.”
Smith said embracing that progressive mentality was important.
“You cannot steal second base with one foot on first,” Smith said, paraphrasing Yogi Berra. “We have got to embrace and respect our past, but not revere our past. We have got to reach forward and embrace things that are the next chapter of this great state.”