Business plan: WV is halfway through its 40-year plan to revital - WBOY - Clarksburg, Morgantown: News, Sports, Weather

Business plan: WV is halfway through its 40-year plan to revitalize state's economy

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West Virginia has come a long way since former President John F. Kennedy visited the hillsides in 1963.

“I would not be where I am, I would not have some of the responsibilities which I now bear, if it had not been for the people of West Virginia,” Kennedy said during a rainy West Virginia Day speech June 20, 1963.

Kennedy campaigned all over the state to try to help the blight he was witness to in order to transform the state into a thriving business economy.

The business climate in the state is halfway through a 40-year plan, according to state leaders. The state has seen much success, but still has much progress to make.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, a Logan County native, took on his first legislative duties — being elected to the West Virginia House of Delegates in 1974 at age 22. Tomblin was then elected to the Senate in 1980. He spent eight years as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and then spent 17 years as Senate President, first elected to that post in 1995.

In the Senate, Tomblin represented Boone, Lincoln, Logan and Wayne counties — almost all of those known for their coal production. In fact, a 2011 report by West Virginia Office of Miners' Health Safety and Training noted Boone County employed the most people in the coal industry across the state.

While Tomblin has not announced any intentions of ever running for an office such as U.S. president, he, like Kennedy, can claim a lot of credit for contributing to improvements in the state's business climate.

Business climate

With the upcoming West Virginia Chamber of Commerce Annual Meeting and Business Summit this month, most minds in the state are filled with thoughts of what the business climate in West Virginia is like right now — and how it can improve.

Charlie Lorensen, chief of staff to Tomblin, said the best salesmen for the state are its business leaders, and that's one reason the summit is so useful.

“From the small business person, to the leaders of larger business enterprises in the state, the best salesmen are folks that are successful and working — making a return for investment in the state of West Virginia and we have a lot of those goodwill ambassadors,” he said.

Lorensen said the summit is a “wonderful showcase of business folks that do reflect well on the business climate of West Virginia.”

However, some experts disagree on just how much the state has done to improve its economy.

Ted Boettner, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, said it depends on the businesses the state is attracting, and how it adjusts, in order for it to grow.

“We have an uneducated, under-skilled workforce,” Boettner said. “Instead of being a cheap place to do business, (West Virginia) needs to be a good place to do business. The education system provides engine for economic growth.”

Boettner said focusing on improving the state's middle class and educating the workforce are crucial ways to improve the state's business climate.

“(The state) can't tax cut our way to prosperity,” Boettner added. “We don't want to have a race to the bottom, what we need is a race to the top.”

West Virginia has, as of late, gotten low scores for education and health care.

A Gallup poll done in February 2014 ranked the Mountain State dead last in overall Well-Being, for the fifth year in a row.

According to the study, the state ranked last in all indexes except work environment.

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau said West Virginia's employee turnover rate among all its industries is 8.8 percent, compared to a national average of 9.1 percent. The state is also tied with North Carolina for fifth lowest turnover rate among manufacturing industries, with a rate of 5.0 percent, compared to a national average of 6.1 percent.

“The governor's biggest priority has been workforce development,” Lorensen said. “Assuring people have practical skills they need for types of jobs out there and projected.”

Gas boom; entrepreneurs

Erikka Storch, president of the Wheeling Area Chamber of Commerce, said that area of the state is seeing a lot of boom in business thanks to Marcellus and Utica Shale.

Lorensen said the natural gas boom has been a great thing for the state, with the announcement just last year of Odebrecht looking to Wood County to build an ethane cracker plant.

“West Virginia really does blaze a potential new way for the future, which is transformative,” Lorensen said. “Our hope is making sure all of those filter to economic activity.”

He said the governor's biggest priority is workforce development; assuring people in the state will have the practical skill sets needed to take on the types of jobs available in the state, to keep workers here.

Storch said entrepreneurs also wish to make their dreams a reality in the 14-mile stretch of the City of Wheeling.

“There's an available amount of property as far as smaller business storefronts,” Storch said. “Our CVB does a good job, regional economic development company puts Wheeling out there and introduces companies to the region to let them see what is available.”

Storch said it also helps that Ohio County has some of the best school systems, and a very low rate in crime.

“I think people find a lot of benefit to raising their families here,” Storch added. “It's affordable to buy nice property here; there's a draw in our tax structure, property taxes are less than neighboring states.”

However, Storch said to continue to bring new people to the area the state needs to put a better emphasis on improving roads.

“The state needs to focus on the roads, if we're going to keep bringing business to the state,” she said. “If the roads aren't maintained, or people's vehicles are being damaged — people might look past us pretty quickly.”

What is working?

While West Virginians hope natural gas and coal are going to continue to lead the way for the state, and data from the West Virginia Department of Commerce paints that picture.

According to the department, West Virginia has seen more than $22.5 billion in new business investments. And according to the state Tax Department, West Virginia removed about $165 million of business tax burden in Fiscal Year 2013 and more than $482 million during the past seven years.

Chelsea Ruby, director of marketing and communications for the Department of Commerce, said the state has, for the ninth consecutive time, reduced workers' compensation rates. Employers will have saved $250 million since the fund privatized in 2006, officials said.

Lorensen echoed those sentiments, saying the workers compensation movement in the state points to one of the many examples that state government has tried to improve the business climate with a hands-off approach.

“(Government) learns from lessons like workers comp reform,” Lorensen said. “Government doesn't ‘squeeze out' what (the) private sector can clearly do better.”

He said there are always objective lessons to be learned from solving problems, with all of those leading to Tomblin wanting the state to be a good place to do business.

Why West Virginia?

West Virginia's cost of living pales in comparison to its border states.

The cost of living in the state is 14 percent lower than the national average, according to Sperling's Best Places.

The state ranks 86 out of 100 for best overall score when it comes to its cost of living.

When comparing capital cities, Charleston ranks about 9 percent higher than Columbus, Ohio, for an overall cost of living score.

Food, housing and utilities are all cheaper in the West Virginia city than the Buckeye State.

West Virginia's electricity rates, both commercial/industrial and residential, are 22 percent below the national average, according to the Department of Commerce.

The state pays attention to property tax, with the High-Technology Business Property Valuation Act providing special property tax valuation for equipment and tangible personal property. The property tax is reduced to about five percent of the tax that would otherwise apply. Sales tax is eliminated from all purchases of pre-written computer software, hardware, serves, building materials and tangible personal property for direct use in a high-technology business or Internet advertising business, officials with the commerce department said.

 

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