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WV business leaders: State should dream big, plan backward

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Thirty years isn't a very long time for a state that just turned 150, but it could be long enough to diversify West Virginia's economy.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy and the West Virginia Community Development Hub hosted people from the political, environmental, business and labor communities for a day of panels and discussions dubbed "A Bright Economic Future for the Mountain State," Sept. 4 in Charleston.

Topics ranged from a proposed Future Fund, shale gas drilling, workforce training and chief among them, economic diversification for the state steeped in coal.

"We often refer to this process as economic development," former Congressman Alan Mollohan said. "Since the time I was first elected … I've referred to it as economic diversity.

"On the community level, on the state level, among federal leadership, economic development best describes the task at hand, it's more to the point, it has a ‘call-to-arms' ring to it, and it evokes the notion of a challenge."

Mollohan was one of four people who participated in a panel called "Visions: West Virginia in 30 Years," and he recalled West Virginia in 1982 as a place where the recession was so great it felt like a depression. He said plants weren't just laying off workers, they were closing down entirely. And it was when the global economy started taking shape, with Japanese workers producing quality cars, capturing the attention of lawmakers who knew they needed to promote new economic sectors.

Mollohan said one thing is the same – the creative, academic, non-profit, government and private sectors all have to be called to action.

"They all have to be playing in unison to promote this kind of diversification," Mollohan said. "The state really needs to step up and play that facilitator role, that financial role."

Scott Rotruck, who has a background in the natural gas industry, said West Virginia needs an architect for its change, or a skeleton on which to build.

"I think starting with the end is right," Rotruck said before quoting author Stephen Covey. "You need first to understood others, then be understood."

Anne Barth, executive director of TechConnectWV, said West Virginia has already been home to many innovations and she hopes to see even more high-wage jobs grown in the Mountain State in 30 years.

"Turning innovations into enterprise has always been the American way," Barth said. "The real enemy is the status quo."

And Barth agreed that partnerships among higher education, the private sector, government and non-profits was necessary to "connect the dots," to diversify the economy.

Matt Ballard, President and CEO of the Charleston Area Alliance, spoke about the impact tourism can have on an economy, citing the Hatfield-McCoy Trail specifically. Public recreation on that private stretch of land brought in $151,000 in ATV permits in its first year, then $400,000 in its third year, $1 million in 2001 and $1.2 million this year.

And Ballard said entrepreneurs have come out of the woodworks in that area to support the trail's business, running hotels, repair shops, restaurants and campgrounds.

"What really excites me is something new," Ballard said. "I can't remember a time, and if someone ever said this I don't recall it, but I don't remember a time when anyone in the public school system ever told me I could own my own business, and we have to change that.

"We have to invest in innovation."

 Mollohan summed up his panel by saying where anyone will be in 30 years is where they envision themselves now.

"The innovation sector is hugely dependent on the research culture," he said. "You have to be on the cutting edge of things and you have to invest in research."