It was a job that brought me to West Virginia. I had been working in the state since 2007, at the Herald-Dispatch in Huntington, where they let me try just about anything. I was a reporter, then an editor, then a sports writer, then a reporter again and then running the newsroom.
I loved everything I did there, and the people were fantastic. It was a tough decision to come to Charleston, but it was the challenge and the people that brought me to the Gazette-Mail in 2016. I wanted to be at the heart of the action during the legislative session. I admired many of the Gazette-Mail long-timers, and found the opportunity to work with someone like Eric Eyre very enticing.
There was never any need to move from our small town near Ashland, Kentucky, when working in Huntington. It was a 20- to 30-minute drive, depending on the day.
Charleston was much different. An hour and 10 minutes one way on a good day, as many as three hours if there was construction or a wreck on Interstate 64. (Which happened a lot.) It was a strain on me.
My wife and I have a young son — a toddler when I started at the Gazette-Mail — and I was only seeing him at bedtime during the week. On the weekends, I was exhausted. That was partly because of the travel, but also because of the job.
I was the city editor at the time, which was a rewarding experience, but also stressful. Some days, it was like herding cats and, on others, as one former G-M city editor put it, “like getting hit in the face with a fire hose.” (I thought the latter was a weird, painful analogy at first, until I realized “Oh, he means with the water on.”)
After a while, I was getting pretty fried. By the spring of 2018, though, my wife was offered a job in Charleston, so we made the move. Yes, we are the two people who migrated to West Virginia that year for work.
I’ve heard it said the best thing about West Virginia is its people, and I’ve found that to be true. We’ve made a lot of great friends here. So has our son.
I knew certain things would be different. I had been working in West Virginia for 11 years by the time we finally moved, so I was aware of the issues that were a competitive disadvantage for the state.
Of course, knowing something and living it are two different things.
Water is an issue that jumped out at me right away. It’s very bad in more rural parts of the state, but Charleston and surrounding municipalities have all kinds of service and water-quality issues from day to day, too. The secondary roads are in much rougher shape here. And the broadband service where I live frequently blinks out, especially in the winter. I’ve been told it’s because old lines contract when it gets cold. I have no reason to doubt that, but when you’re in the state’s capital city and your internet isn’t working for the same reason the engine on a 1984 Ford Escort won’t turn over, it sends a discouraging message.
Now, it’s not like we came here from Nashville or Charlotte or Boston. We came from a town of about 5,000 people in a state that certainly has its own challenges. It didn’t have anything like Mountain Stage or a minor league baseball team or the Clay Center. But it did have the basics covered.
When I hear about income tax repeal plans to bring masses of people to this state, I think about what West Virginia has to offer them. Great people, beautiful scenery, a vibrant arts community and a lot of interesting history, to be sure. And those things really are a draw. But basic services and infrastructure are lacking, even in the most populous areas, and people notice that.
There’s also an assumption that the cost of living is lower here. That might be true for people in border states with metropolitan areas near the line, but it’s actually higher for my family, compared to our previous residence.
This legislative session has been particularly grim for the prospect of growing population. Instead of taking on the most fundamental problems, legislators have focused on discriminating against transgender students, undermining public education and punishing teachers, protecting Confederate monuments, tax breaks for the wealthy in a poor state and rolling back protections on water quality. That doesn’t exactly scream “wave of the future!”
At least West Virginia doesn’t have to worry about national organizations coming in and pulling their events in protest.
The only thing to take away in West Virginia that isn’t coal or gas is the state’s young folks. West Virginia has been losing the young and talented people who could help rebuild the state for years. Many of them really want to stay, but the continued failure to address basic problems while waging culture wars that make the state less welcoming only serves to increase the exodus. And it does nothing to attract any new blood from elsewhere.
I consider myself lucky to be here, and I plan on staying. I can’t say the same thing with any certainty for my son, when he eventually comes to that fork in the road. There’s always hope things can change, but, at the moment, it feels more like a wish.