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Too much or too little government?

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Sen. Brooks McCabe, D-Kanawha, is managing member and broker of West Virginia Commercial LLC. He has been involved in commercial and investment real estate for more than 30 years, and he also is general partner of McCabe Land Co. LP. He has served in the West Virginia Senate since 1998, and is a special project consultant to The State Journal.

West Virginia is not unique in having what some may consider too many counties or too many municipalities. 

One of the arguments for leaving everything the same is to look at Kentucky with 120 counties, the smallest of which has 2,300 people. One county in Virginia reportedly has more black bears than residents. In this issue of The State Journal, Jim Ross and George Hohmann present a number of interesting facts about our state and local government and divide the state into four regions to highlight the differences and particular opportunities within the state. 

When asked the question as to whether West Virginia has too much or too little government, a second question should also be asked: Are we looking at our present situation, or are we looking at what the state needs to be in the future? 

The future is metro

Many county commissioners suggest that we are doing just fine with intergovernmental agreements and there is no need to rock the boat. From the perspective of life as we know it, that is a defensible position. However, if one looks to the future, West Virginia's governmental structure becomes more problematic. If we look to the states around us, we will always be playing catchup. It should make no difference how many counties are in the state of Kentucky or what is the population in Virginia's smallest county. 

The question should be, "What form of governmental structure does West Virginia need to become a powerhouse economically and to become so by continually improving its residents' quality of life and our natural environment?" 

The State Journal in its "Map to Prosperity" is suggesting that change is needed, but not the incremental kind with which we have been so comfortable in past years. 

Looking at the state regionally, the biggest opportunity for sustainable economic growth is in "shale country," Northern and North-Central West Virginia. Investment in new plants and infrastructure is already in the billions of dollars. Much more is to come. Yet the region is poorly organized to fully capture the opportunities ahead. Money will be flowing, so there will be a tendency to make few changes, as the future will be better than the past. 

Rivalries limit us

County rivalries will limit opportunities. What if Hancock and Brooke counties merged to be better aligned to capture the future growth from the Pittsburgh International Airport? What if Wheeling and Ohio County were the first in West Virginia to become a metro government and provide leadership for the rest of the state? What if Monongalia and Harrison counties merged into Marion County to create one of the strongest MSAs in the state and postured itself to double its diversified economy within the next 10 years? 

With these changes, North-Central West Virginia would have even more clout in the Legislature to address the transportation and infrastructure needs that their growing economy requires. These are game changers for the future and have little in common with the past. Metro Valley, the Charleston-Huntington corridor, stands ready to be a major beneficiary of the dramatic growth in "shale country." Its chemical and manufacturing industries are poised for significant expansion. This region alone in West Virginia has the ability to become a top 100 market nationally. Yet the lack of trust between counties and the tension between the largest cities and the unincorporated areas are as great as any place in the state. 

Couple this with Charleston and Huntington being in a continual state of competition, and one begins to see the dysfunction of the current governmental structure. It should be a call to action that the Metro Valley is the only region in West Virginia that has negative employment growth. What if Charleston and Huntington became metro governments within their respective counties? What if then Kanawha and Cabell counties merged into Putnam County creating a super county with nine county commissioners and a leadership structure that would receive national attention? Most importantly, it would cause the merging of the Charleston MSA and the Huntington — Ashland MSA into a single metropolitan statistical area, becoming one of the top 100 markets in the country. With that size and diversity, it would then be able to capture another Toyota type of facility, as it would have the critical mass needed for an adequate labor force, four major hospitals and a transportation system and infrastructure capable of competing head to head nationally. 

The "Quality of Life Region," West Virginia's eastern counties, represent what is best about our state. The mountains, streams and valleys are among the highest quality in the mid-Atlantic region. Growth will occur here, but can it stay rural by design? These challenges are significant. Yet there is no clear leader for the region. The Eastern Panhandle continually complains that it is not taken seriously by the rest of the state. The more important question is, "Why is the Eastern Panhandle not being taken seriously by the supercharged counties surrounding its border?" The eastern panhandle is a bedroom community for northern Virginia and Maryland. It is viewed as an inexpensive, quality place to live while one can work at a higher-paying job in the surrounding states. Why is there not more industry in the Eastern Panhandle? One significant reason is that Jefferson, Berkeley, Morgan, Hampshire and Mineral counties are part of four different MSAs. The Washington Metro, Winchester, Hagerstown and Cumberland MSAs are the economic focus, not the Eastern Panhandle. If Jefferson, Berkeley, and Morgan counties would merge, the Eastern Panhandle would become an MSA. This would also require Martinsburg and Berkeley County to become a metro government to create the mass for the central urban area. If the Eastern Panhandle were an MSA, there would be a focus on the Eastern Panhandle, which would positively impact the entire Quality of Life Region running the full length of West Virginia eastern counties. There would also be a significant increase in stature and political influence at the State Capitol. No longer would the region need to worry about not being taken seriously.

Coal can create its destiny

Coal country will not benefit to a dramatic degree from the growth in the other three regions. It needs to create its own destiny, rather than hold back and continue to complain that it, as a region, is being left behind. What if Boone, Lincoln, Logan and Mingo counties merged into one county? That super county would control the development along Corridor G from Southridge to the Kentucky border. Just look at the success of Summersville and Nicholas County along U.S. Route 19. The super county could become the state's voice of coal, as it produces 30 percent of the tonnage at 40,243,448 tons versus the next two largest counties, being Marshall and Marion, at 17,154,805 and 11,179,885 tons respectively (Source: Coal Facts — 2013). It would provide a focus on the southern coal fields and assure that the central Appalachian field would not overpower the south on coal policy. What if Princeton and Bluefield merged and formed a metro government with Mercer County? What if Beckley and Raleigh County did the same? Engines of economic opportunity can create their own future. It is much more difficult with multiple smaller cities competing among each for what they perceive as scarce resources. 

Do we have too much government, or too little, as West Virginia prepares itself for the future? The State Journal's readers and their governmental officials need to decide. 

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