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Education key to W.Va. economy

by James Fisher

STAFF WRITER

A diminishing workforce and lack of basic infrastructure are two of the biggest problems that distressed Appalachian counties face, said Region VI Planning and Development Council chairman Jim Hunt, who attended the Appalachian Regional Commission's three-day Development District Association of Appalachia Conference held in Washington, D.C. last weekend.

Representatives from nearly all 406 Appalachian counties in 13 states attended the conference to discuss ways to better increase educational opportunities, basic infrastructure and economic growth possibilities, Hunt said.

The big push in the state right now is enabling students and workers to meet the demands of a constantly evolving high-tech workplace, he said.

One of the hallmarks of nearly every distressed county in Appalachia is the weakness of the human resource base and lack of highly educated workers, according to a review published last year about the ARC's programs and policies in distressed counties.

As an example, the review cited the fact that 45 percent of adults over the age of 25 in distressed counties have less than a high school diploma, compared to 21 percent in attainment counties -- the ARC's best designation -- and 24.8 percent in the U.S.

Just 8.5 percent of adults over 25 years old in distressed counties have graduated from college, according to the review, compared with about 25 percent in attainment counties and 20.3 percent in the U.S.

"I think education is the big push in West Virginia right now," Hunt said. "If we want these big high-tech manufacturers to come here, we need to have the workforce for them. In this part of the country -- West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and southeastern Ohio -- there were a lot of coal mines. As the mines closed, work-force development is key.

"Lifelong learning is here to stay. To be competitive, a worker has to be constantly learning and evolving," he said. "In that vein, ARC funds can be used to support projects like the High Tech Consortium's learning programs."

But like a big, self-fulfilling prophecy, one aspect of the economy affects all the other parts eventually. Because the jobs have not existed in the state in the past, workers are leaving West Virginia to find work with a decent livable wage, said Rosemary Wagner, director of Region VII.

When the workers leave the state, school enrollment numbers drop, which in turn decreases funding for the educational system. That eventually leads to a less-educated workforce.

"I think that where we need to be is creating small cottage industries of 10 or 12 jobs with a decent livable wage," she said. "People want to stay here, they don't want to have to leave to find work. They want their kids to stay here."

The other main topics of discussion at the conference were improving basic infrastructure and transportation -- two things that are a high priority in West Virginia.

Over the years as coal mines and other industries closed and left West Virginia, there was little reason other than housing to further extend water and sewer lines, Hunt said. That has resulted in numerous small communities throughout the state going without these services. One of the major problems with extending the service is the high cost that must be passed on to the consumer because there is no economic reason for the extension, Hunt said.

This is where ARC funding becomes important, he said, to offset the high cost of making quality water and sewage service available to all West Virginians. And, Hunt said, if the water and sewer service is extended, that makes the area more attractive to potential businesses.

The other concern is access to major transportation lines. While cities and counties directly along major routes like Interstate 79 and Corridor H have a little easier time attracting business, the challenge for local regional planning councils is helping areas without this direct access, he said.

"We need to get the rest of the region to share in the prosperity that exists along I-79," he said. "Look at Doddridge County. Is a huge Wal-Mart the best thing for them? No, they don't have the population or the direct access to support something like that.

"What we need to do for places like that is look at the smaller cottage industries that will be supported and thrive," he said.

But despite a few remaining pockets of distress in West Virginia, the overall picture seems to be looking up, Wagner said.

A new federal prison in Gilmer County, interest in Tucker County's industrial park, construction and new businesses locating in Lewis County, Randolph County officials finding new ways to market the area to take advantage of the lumber industry and economic growth potential in Upshur County all point to advances being made, she said.

"Even in the counties overlooked on economic development, there are steps being made," she said. "But we can't stop. We need to keep taking strides forward. We have to think positively, because I think there is a strong light at the end of the tunnel.

"We're at the point of trying to place the dominoes in a row, but we're not yet ready to begin knocking them over," she said. "There's hope. We're taking some good steps forward, so there's definitely hope."

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