Gov. Jim Justice is hearing a lot about ways to attract new businesses to West Virginia. To succeed, he will need to lead an effort to change people’s perceptions of West Virginia.
This won’t be easy. The West Virginia brand needs a makeover to attract 21st-century businesses that rely on an educated, highly skilled workforce. Unfortunately, the perception of West Virginia is that it’s a pretty place to visit, but not a hospitable place to live if you’re not white, heterosexual or a Christian — or if you are someone who treats any of the above as fellow citizens. In other words, most Americans.
Justice is a successful businessman. He knows a thing or two about marketing. And he knows that one of the things holding West Virginia back is the perception that the majority of Americans — and many West Virginians, too — do not feel welcome here.
Justice can change this by changing the tone. By calling all West Virginians to be true Mountaineers. To live by the motto: Mountaineers are always free. All Mountaineers. Everyone who chooses to live and work here.
Freedom is the right to be different from your neighbor — and not have your home vandalized. Freedom is also equal access to clean water and quality infrastructure in all corners of the state.
For our workers, who are understandably worried about their jobs, freedom calls us to remember a time when West Virginia workers were oppressed, many of them rounded up and beaten, arrested or shot for exercising their rights.
If we want our state to grow, we need to remember who we are. When we do, we will realize that American cities and states that are growing and thriving are doing the same.
Take Austin, Texas, for example — a city whose business community has adopted the slogan, “Keep Austin Weird.”
PayPal says it chose the city to set up shop because it offered a diverse pool of professionals and people who support local cultural and arts institutions. PayPal wasn’t looking for a city where everyone looked the same and thought the same; they wanted a place that nurtured a variety of attitudes and backgrounds — because that’s the workforce they needed.
When the manufacturer of Atomic and Salomon skis needed to move, they chose Odgen, Utah, for its access to terrific outdoor recreation.
“There is world-class skiing 20 minutes from our office and world-class trail running and mountain bike trails within five minutes of our office. Across the street is the Ogden River with its world-class kayaking,” said Mike Dowse, president of Amer Sports Winter & Outdoor Americas.
Utah is hardly a bastion of liberalism, but they have found a way to capitalize on their natural assets to welcome people who can help build a strong economy.
Look at two of the few West Virginia counties that are growing. Monongalia and Jefferson are among the state’s most diverse places, not only in race and ethnicity, but in attitudes. They attract other Mountaineers as well as people from other places.
The City of Charles Town attracted American Public University System (APUS), a publicly traded online university and now Jefferson County’s fourth-largest employer, in part because the city offered access to high-speed internet. As an employee-recruitment incentive, APUS built a solar-powered parking garage with plugins for electric vehicles. There is access to nearby parks and paddling, too. In summer, roof racks sport kayaks and bicycles for after-work recreation.
I’m concerned we’re sticking it to ourselves by sticking to tired refrains, like deregulation as the only path to growth. I see this in water policy, where narrow interests say the way to revive our economy is to weaken water quality standards — in effect, making it easier to dump more mercury, PCBs and other cancer-causing chemicals into drinking water supplies.
Would young people deciding where to raise their families say, “Yes, I want to live where there are more toxins in the water”?
We need to think differently. We need West Virginia to be a place where young people want to move and stay. Where companies leading the way in technological innovation clamor to relocate. Where venture capitalists look for new ideas from our best and brightest.
We have the assets. Now we need the imagination and will to redefine West Virginia as a state with forward-facing vision to where prosperity lies.
I hope Mr. Justice will lead us there.
Angie Rosser is executive director of West Virginia Rivers Coalition, a nonprofit organization working to preserve everyone’s right to enjoy clean, healthy rivers and streams.