The State at 151: Time to Look Forward

Stephen N. Reed
The State at 151:  Time to Look Forward

This past year, my wife and I joined the Great West Virginia Diaspora:  all those West Virginians who live outside of the borders of the Mountain State.  Displaced!  

Well, while it is true that I found work hard to get, even in the Eastern Panhandle, we don't feel that unfortunate, except for not seeing family and friends back home as often as we'd like.  We have found a place that is easy for a Mountaineer to feel at home in many ways: the Low Country of South Carolina.

True, the Low Country is flat, but interestingly, you can be fooled about the lack of mountains, as the tall trees lining South Carolina's interstates shield you from seeing all that level land.  So one can at least imagine that, behind that curtain of green trees, looms a big hillside the likes of which we took for granted in Preston County, WV.

Here also, the people are friendly and mostly from small towns, just like West Virginia.  Plus, it's nice to not only have a job but to have the prospect of future employment, as well.  Little South Carolina, about the same size as West Virginia, has over 180 Japanese companies located here, along with aerospace giant Boeing in the Charleston area.  

The reasons for this enormous economic growth in the last generation is for at least two reasons:  South Carolina doesn't have the traditional labor issues that West Virginia has had, and they are a generation ahead of us in terms of a competitive two-party system. Their Governor and legislature has been friendly to business, understanding the obvious that, while protecting workers' basic rights is a top priority, so is putting on a welcoming face to those who want to do business here.  

So the future looks bright here, even though South Carolina, like West Virginia, has struggled in the past with adequately funding its public education system.  However, they at least have a growing tax base to support it in the future.

Some ask, "Is it too late for West Virginia to join the economic progress of the New South?" In other words, has our economics and politics allowed West Virginia to miss so many waves of economic progress that we are doomed to be merely an older state with a shrinking tax base forever?

That depends.  The states of the New South--like South Carolina, North Carolina, and Tennessee--had to reinvent themselves.  For example, South Carolina, once the textile capital of the Southeast, had to diversify in order to compete in a global marketplace. Granted, they have the distinct advantage of having large acreage of flat land for industrial plants.

But whatever happened to that excellent idea of now two decades ago that maintained that, thanks to West Virginia's exceptional fiber optics capacity, more digital businesses, large and small, could start just about anywhere across our mountains and valleys? Where is the dream of Governor Cecil Underwood and his daily emphasis on high technology?

West Virginia has made progress in this 21st Century arena of high tech.  And in educational leaders like WVU President E. Gordon Gee, one has to believe that we have sufficient intellectual capital to help our schools keep pace with the times.  What we need is a wave of digital entrepreneurs willing to take a chance on West Virginia--and a state government truly willing to roll out the red carpet for them.  All it takes if for the first wave of such digital entrepreneurs to have a measure of success in West Virginia for others to follow.

It pains me when I'm talking to a South Carolinian whose only knowledge of West Virginia is "as that stretch of interstate that I pass through on the way to visiting relatives in Ohio."   I tell them to take one of our highway exits the next time to experience our people, scenery, and rich culture.  They'll think about it.

They'd think a lot more about it if, now and then, they hear about our beloved state making some broad strides in developing a 21st Century economy, much like little European countries like Ireland have done with their impressive gains in recent years.  Wouldn't it be incredible in a few years if South Carolina started sending some of their college graduates to West Virginia for careers instead of the other way around?  With proper leadership from the business and government community, who knows?

West Virginia is unique among the United States of America in being formed almost entirely as an idea.  151 years ago, that idea took shape around the concepts of fair treatment from one's state government, freedom for all, and loyalty to the country that promised us certain important freedoms in the U.S. Constitution.  

West Virginia can retain those ideas and add new ones, showing the world that a determined people who care deeply about their children's future can still break away from an inadequate status quo--just as we did during the Civil War.  This November, exercise your right to vote for the future of West Virginia and say a fond farewell to those who embody its recent past.

Stephen N. Reed served as Deputy Secretary of State of West Virginia and is a former Charleston, WV talk radio host.



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