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Economic growth in panhandle must reflect population growth

By Staff | Sep 23, 2016

Making the Eastern Panhandle more economically competitive to mirror the population growth was the focus of the West Virginia Economic Development Council’s fall conference.

The Jefferson County Development Authority hosted the event which was held at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races, and featured guest speakers from all over West Virginia who discussed new businesses, education, the drug epidemic and broadband services during the three-day conference.

Sen. Joe Manchin pointed out that the Panhandle has increased its population by 56 percent and is consistently ranked as the fastest growing region in the state since the 1990s, partly due to its prime location. He lauded the many job fairs and businesses that have come to the region like Macy’s, Proctor and Gamble and Gat Creek Furniture in Berkeley Springs, but stated that measures need to be in place to ensure continued growth to attract more opportunities for West Virginians.

Manchin said that higher education plays a significant role in drawing people to an area.

“There should not be a reason that every young person or non-tradional student shouldn’t have a pathway to education,” said Manchin. “It doesn’t have to be a four-year degree, –some further degree than just high school. With that being said, it also shouldn’t be a burden where they can’t pay the debt off. There are many ways to do that and it’s important because education is the great equalizer. Without an education system to introduce people into the work force, we’ve got a serious problem.”

A panel of guests including, West Virginia University president; Dr. Gordon Gee, Blue Ridge and Technical College president; Dr. Peter Checkovich, American Public University president; Dr. Karan Powell and Shepherd University president; Dr. Dr. Mary Hendrix fielded questions and discussed their school’s contributions to economic growth in the Eastern Panhandle.

“Collectively all the West Virginia institutions (of higher education) are having a 2.7 billion dollar impact on West Virginia. This was according to recent findings of an economic impact study that came from the Bureau of Business and Economic Research from the West Virginia University,” said Hendrix. “I’m proud to say that Shepherd University has helped to contribute $91.9 million. We are now ranked number three behind West Virginia University and Marshall University, so we’re proud of that.” Hendrix continued, “Last Friday we had the opportunity to announce at Shepherd University, the establishment of a center for regional innovation. So we see Shepherd as a catalyst for economic development and growth in the Eastern Panhandle.”

Checkovich talked about the business-driven side of Blue Ridge, saying that some of their programs are designed specifically to cater to businesses located in the panhandle like Hollywood Casino and Proctor and Gamble.

“One of the criticisms I hear (about higher education) is that it tends to move too slowly,” said Checkovich. “At Blue Ridge, we’re always adapting to changes in business and industry and the slogan that we go by is ‘If you want to work with business, you have to move with the speed of business.’ You can’t wait three years to bring a degree or certificate program to the public. You have to act quickly.”

Checkovich cited an example saying that Blue Ridge had trained 500 dealers for the casino within 6 months of the passage of the table games referendum to facilitate a timely start for the games.

“I have to tell you, it’s the most interest I’ve seen in any certificate or degree program in my history in higher education.”

All of the higher education representatives noted the importance and integration of STEM classes and programs at their institutions, saying that it’s the highest growth area and the related jobs are high skilled and high paying.

Both Manchin and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito fielded questions about the many issues with broadband in the panhandle and other parts of West Virginia.

“The market won’t drive internet being available in rural areas of West Virginia. Other rural states are having the same problem and it’s one of the reasons these states are less populated,” said Manchin. “We’re working hard to make sure every school and library is connected, but they (internet providers) aren’t going to invest in areas where there’s no return on investment. There can be hot spot connectivity for these schools, but that doesn’t help the businesses any. It’s been very challenging, but we will work hard to press forward with this issue.”

“Economic development is where I want to make my biggest impact in the state,” said Capito. “Let’s keep that energy going. The table is set where someone can come in and make a good investment and get a good workforce, great conditions for moving and expanding their business to strategic locations.”

Capito continued, “When I was running for Senate, one thing I noticed was the lack of broadband all across the state. The FCC statistics came out and said that 59 or 56 percent of the state is unserved with even the minimum internet that they require. We can’t let that stand. So I began a program called ‘Capito Connect,’ putting a lot of pressure on the providers—shining a light on how dimly we’ve been treated, especially in the rural areas. If rural America doesn’t catch up here, to me, that’s a leg in the stool of economic development and that’s going to push us further behind.”