“West Virginia faces a critical time in its history as it lags behind a growing national economy,” West Virginia University President Gordon Gee told business leaders Thursday at the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce’s 81st Annual Meeting and Business Summit.
The affable and tireless 72-year-old president, in his second go-round at WVU, used his presentation at The Greenbrier resort to tell a few hilarious jokes — but primarily to unveil a comprehensive study of how to address the state’s economic and social issues and put West Virginia on the road to prosperity.
“The people who dwell among these magnificent hills and hollows deserve lives as soaring and strong as our landscape,” he said. “They deserve the economic security, stellar education and first-rate health care that would allow them to approach life’s starting line on even footing with all Americans.”
To help lead and inspire a turnaround, WVU joined with the state Department of Commerce and Marshall University for a comprehensive study on what could be done to leverage the state’s inherent strengths and current businesses to turn the tide, WVU reports on its website.
Called West Virginia Forward, the study and report suggests a path to grow the state economically and educationally. The path has three objectives, Gee said.
“First, we need to reinforce the foundation that supports economic growth, including our infrastructure, talent base and business climate. The second objective is to identify potential sectors in which West Virginia can grow to diversify our economy.
“And, finally, we must draw a clear roadmap, helping partners around the state navigate these new pathways toward our shared destination: A prosperous West Virginia.”
The study, conducted by McKinsey & Co., had three objectives:
- Identify potential sectors in which West Virginia can grow to diversify its economy.
- Reinforce the foundation that supports economic growth, including infrastructure, talent base and business climate.
- Create a clear roadmap, helping partners around the state navigate these new pathways toward a prosperous West Virginia.
He said what state leaders learned from the report can change the state’s future. “West Virginia has many robust industries that we can grow, such as aerospace maintenance, automotive parts manufacturing and metals manufacturing.”
The state also has sectors that are growing more slowly here than nationally, but where we can succeed is by differentiating ourselves from the competition. One area is downstream oil and gas manufacturing, specifically in carbon-fiber-reinforced plastics and fine chemicals.
“New sectors the state can capture that promise high growth are cybersecurity, cloud services and data centers and higher-end tourism,” he said. “And two areas that create distinct opportunities in West Virginia are the life sciences and automotive assembly.”
To accomplish these goals, however, Gee said much work must be done to make West Virginia attractive, such as improving infrastructure, including better broadband access; changes in tax law; realignment of the state Department of Commerce to create a one-stop shop that aligns current resources with business needs and directs businesses to the right offices for help; and addressing workforce issues, including education and drug addiction.
“Our next steps include asking each stakeholder to undertake projects to solve these problems and implement these recommendations,” he said. “For example, the state will work to attract anchor companies in cybersecurity, while other partners invest in cybersecurity talent and creating the environment where cybersecurity businesses can succeed.”
In other words, state education, business and government leaders must focus on conversation, collaboration and have the confidence to implement bold changes.
“Our state is crying out for change, but change does not mean shifting funds around or raising our ranks in quality-of-life polls,” Gee said. “Change means elevating our vision of what is possible. It means recognizing our assets and exploring new opportunities for growth. Above all, it means abandoning our negative state self-image,” he said.
Surely there have been many studies and reports issued to improve the state before which have been put on a shelf and forgotten. But West Virginia can’t afford to ignore the need for change any longer.
Good for WVU, Marshall and the Commerce Department for commissioning the study. The next steps are for the state’s political, business and education leaders to read it, and implement bold steps and follow the recommendations.