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Legislative listening tour makes stop in Huntington

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Photo courtesy Marshall University. Derek Gregg, the CEO of Vandalia Research Inc., speaks at a legislative hearing Feb. 17 in Huntington. Photo courtesy Marshall University. Derek Gregg, the CEO of Vandalia Research Inc., speaks at a legislative hearing Feb. 17 in Huntington.

For The State Journal

Imagine, if you can, a room crowded with two dozen state legislators. Yet, the vast majority of them don't utter a word. 

Believe it or not, that was the scene Feb. 17 at Marshall University's Memorial Student Center. And that was exactly the way the meeting was planned, said House Speaker Tim Miley, D-Harrison. 

The Marshall meeting was the second stop of the "Seeking Solutions — Celebrating Successes" listening tour sponsored by the West Virginia House of Delegates Committee on Small Business, Entrepreneurship and Economic Development. 

Miley initiated the tour to allow delegates on the 25-member committee to hear directly from state residents about both the benefits and obstacles of doing business in West Virginia. He said the goal is to determine what hurdles small businesses face that state legislators could remove to allow them to flourish. 

"We came to listen," Miley told the audience of 100 or so. 

Derek Gregg, CEO of Vandalia Research Inc., was one of four Huntington businessmen invited to speak about the success of their ventures and to offer suggestions about how small businesses might be better aided.

Gregg explained that Vandalia, which manufactures artificial DNA, was started as a class project at Marshall in 2003. The company's steady growth since, he said, has been the result of a "constant stream of people who were willing to help us. That's a real credit to West Virginia." 

He praised the state's "Bucks for Brains" program that funds campus research and urged the expansion of such efforts.

Rob Stepp, president of Creative Kitchens Inc., said his family-owned business has been doing kitchen and bath design and remodeling for more than 50 years and now has additional locations in Charleston and Lewisburg.

One of his biggest worries, Stepp said, is that his firm "has very few young employees," a fact that raises uncertainty about its future. West Virginia, he said, must do a better job of keeping its young people in the state and attracting them to the business world. One way of doing that, he suggested, would be to "involve business leaders in our classrooms."

In contrast, Edwin Lake, who owns and operates three Tropical Moon Frozen Yogurt shops, said he's "overwhelmed" with applications from young people, especially Marshall students, seeking jobs. 

"We employ 12 people at this time of year and will hire double that this summer," he said.

Lake noted that his business is home-grown, not a franchise. His best advice for would-be entrepreneurs: make a thorough plan of what you need to do. 

"We did six months of research before we started constructing our first store," Lake said.

David Justice, vice president of Justice Glass & Supply Co., complained that his long-time family business must deal with unfair competition. He explained that most West Virginia auto insurance claims are now handled by a third-party administrator that also owns a windshield replacement company. He noted that state law prohibits insurance companies or agents from steering repair business to a particular company. The law needs to be expanded to also apply to third-parties that handle claims.

Speakers from the audience included the owner of a craft beer tap house at Heritage Station who complained about undue regulation of the beer business by the state as well as the operator of a local roller rink who said all his profits are being consumed by state taxes. 

Marshall President Stephen J. Kopp said he was pleased the tour stopped on the university's campus.

 "We were delighted and honored to welcome members of the committee and the greater Huntington community to our campus for this important public meeting," Kopp said. "It is by sharing information about our common goals and vision that we can further economic development and improve the quality of life for everyone in our communities." 

The committee opened its tour with a Feb. 11 meeting in Clarksburg. An additional eight meetings are planned in various locales.