The 2016 election has shone a national spotlight on American communities that are struggling as our nation shifts from a manufacturing-based economy to one that is fueled on knowledge and innovation.
To West Virginians, these struggles are hardly a new revelation. For decades, many of our communities have witnessed the staggering decline of industries that supported generations of families. We cannot retreat into yesterday’s economic landscape, but we also cannot build a prosperous future by turning our backs on devastated communities and the people who call them home.
To many, West Virginia faces major challenges, but to me, big challenges call for bold thinking that results in new opportunity. That is why I am so optimistic about the Rock Creek Development Park project. As Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin announced in his 2016 State of the State address, this public-private project will transform more than 12,000 acres in Boone and Lincoln counties into a hub for industrial, commercial, and residential development in southern West Virginia. It is exactly what Southern West Virginia needs to not only revitalize the region’s economy, but get people back on their feet and into jobs that are sustainable now and for generations.
To highlight the property’s potential, the West Virginia National Guard recently announced plans to be the site’s first investor, where it will open new facilities to conduct training for members, expand its vehicle maintenance operations and develop agriculture projects. And state leaders and consultants are developing a strategy for attracting the best industrial and entrepreneurial operations to the area. Local officials in Boone, Lincoln, Mingo, Logan and Kanawha counties are playing a major role in shaping the project, which has great potential to create jobs for citizens and strengthen our state’s southern coalfield communities.
Rock Creek Development Park is a perfect example of a unified response to one of West Virginia’s major challenges — a lack of flat land in Southern West Virginia capable to build and sustain new infrastructure. This has been a recurring problem that, quite frankly, was too big for any person, business, industry, university or government agency to overcome alone. Thanks to the leadership of Gov. Tomblin, West Virginia has transformed a repetitive problem into an innovative solution that I am proud to be a part of. And I am confident our structured partnership, centered around new ideas, will serve as model for neighboring states now and for years to come.
When I think about the future of our state, I am a firm believer that we must continue to look at things in new ways. Our most fearsome enemy is the phrase, “This is the way we do things in West Virginia.” We must surge beyond boundaries that have held us back by taking risks — thoughtful, strategic risks. And that is exactly what we are doing at Rock Creek Development Park.
Those who know me know that I am a strong proponent of new ideas. In fact, our University took a risk of its own recently by opening a new campus in Beckley, in the heart of the southern coalfields.
The mission of this new campus is similar to that of Rock Creek — to increase access to new education and training opportunities for those who call this region home. Whether it is young adults just beginning life after high school, or adult learners entering the postsecondary education realm for the first time, I believe increasing access to these new opportunities will serve as the region’s engine of economic development.
We all must move beyond fear and doubt. And we must find the courage to shake off the negative self-image that has haunted our state for so long. West Virginia has certainly experienced its share of adversity, from major economic downturns to horrific natural disasters. But despite hardships, West Virginians have always kept going — planning and working and moving toward a brighter future.
As I tell people wherever I go, West Virginians are the most resilient people I have ever met. Resiliency is woven into the very fabric of West Virginia, dating back to our state’s separation from the Old Dominion. In a dark time, we boldly chose an uncertain path forward and forged a new identity.
If state leaders in government, business, health care and education continue to unite and work for our state’s common good, we can reimagine West Virginia’s future and become a national model for resiliency, growth and prosperity.
E. Gordon Gee is president of West Virginia University.