Recently, residents of the Kanawha Valley have heard a great deal from elected officials about the success of the sports complex at Shawnee Park and the remodeling of the Charleston Coliseum & Convention Center. The conversations about these two projects always find their way back to the same term: economic development.
If you were around the greater Charleston area this summer, evidence of Shawnee’s ability to bring people to West Virginia was clearly on display. The same can be said for some big-ticket concerts at our newly renovated civic center. Well beyond the hustle and bustle of our Friday nights on the Levee, it was easy to see packed restaurants and hotels booked beyond capacity. From the standpoint of local tax collection, especially the extra 1 percent sales tax permitted within Charleston city limits through home rule, these projects have injected significant revenue into city coffers.
But what does that mean for the waiter making $2.62 an hour to serve the families visiting our state and capital city? A couple of additional shifts and more tips? Let’s be honest with ourselves, that does not qualify as economic security for those on the front lines of tourism and service who work, day in and night out, showing the best of Charleston. For the hotel housekeeper making barely more than minimum wage, a couple of paychecks with some overtime is minuscule in comparison to what shareholders of our corporate hotel chains are making.
According to WorkForce West Virginia, nearly two-thirds of the jobs created in our state over the next decade will be low wage. This includes many service jobs that make the events happening at the Coliseum and Shawnee Sports Complex possible. More people will be needed to prepare food and wash dishes and ring up purchases at local gas stations and shops downtown. Economic development must not leave them behind, and if our local and state leaders embrace a shared prosperity for all West Virginians, we can all share in the bounty of more people visiting and spending money here.
The best place to start is raising the minimum wage, incrementally, to $15 an hour and eliminating the tipped minimum wage. It has been shown time and time again that when working folks have the kind of economic security that allows them disposable income, they spend it in local economies.
By ensuring a living wage to those who keep the gears running smoothly in our tourism and service economies, we ensure not only jobs with justice, but also the dignity that allows working families to have a local dinner out with their loved ones. Additionally, we need to enact paid sick days and fair scheduling policies for this same workforce.
Projects like the sports complex at Shawnee Park and Coliseum remodeling, if treated as the destination and not the start of economic development, leave our neighbors behind, and that should not be acceptable in our community. No barista should have to choose between coming to work sick or losing a day’s pay.
To be sure, policymakers have a responsibility to champion policies that improve the quality of life for our tourism and service-sector professionals. It’s not enough to simply create more low-wage work without tangible benefits. Policymakers must make living wages and quality-of-life policies like fair scheduling laws and paid family medical leave a priority.
Future developments like Shawnee and the Coliseum can provide economic development AND economic security for those who make those industries run.