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Local economic growth predicted

by Paul Darst

STAFF WRITER

BRIDGEPORT -- George Hammond did not look for his shadow when he arrived at the Pete Dye Golf Course clubhouse Friday morning.

But the West Virginia University economics professor did have some predictions to make during the Harrison County Chamber of Commerce Groundhog Day Breakfast.

His forecast for North Central West Virginia calls for more of the same economic weather: Growth, but not as much as in the rest of the country.

"West Virginia's growth is in large part dependent on the national average," said Hammond, director of West Virginia Outlook at the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at WVU.

"I think we will continue to improve, but we'll keep falling behind if something doesn't happen."

During the last decade, West Virginia experienced a healthy growth spurt, Hammond said. But the country as a whole grew at a faster rate, meaning this state fell behind.

Hammond said he expects the coming months to bring slower growth for the state because of the increasingly sluggish national economy. If that happens, the state is likely to fall even further behind the national average, Hammond said.

A major reason the state was unable to gain ground on the rest of the nation during the 1990s is because our economy has not diversified enough, Hammond said.

"We're more diversified than in the 70s," he said. "Mining accounts for a smaller portion of our economy now, but we are still reliant on a few big industries."

Those industries are coal, chemicals, steel and electrical generation, Hammond said.

Although he said more diversification of the state's economy will help, it is not a, "magic pill."

After hearing Hammond's presentation, one chamber member said he knew another way to help the state grow: More roads.

"We need more east-west roads," said Wallace Brake, who serves on the chamber's roads committee. "We have the north-south (routes) covered."

Brake cited the incomplete Corridor D between Clarksburg and Parkersburg and Interstate 68, which ends at Morgantown. If those highways are completed to stretch across the state, the added infrastructure will help economic development, he said.

Hammond agreed that improved infrastructure will help the state's efforts to diversify its economy.

But building roads in West Virginia is different than in most other states, he said. For example, roads built in Great Plains state are less expensive because the land there is flat.

Here, road construction means blasting through mountains.

West Virginia is even different than other more similar states, Hammond said. Funding road construction is more possible in western Virginia, for example, because that state has a large metropolitan area to help its tax base.

Although North Central West Virginia did not gain any ground on the rest of the country during the last decade, that should not lessen what was accomplished here, Hammond said.

"(The region) had overall economic growth in the face of massive change," he said. "We lost quite a few mining jobs during the 1990s -- jobs that pay $50,000 a year -- and still did well. The region is to be commended."

Staff writer Paul Darst can be reached at 626-1404 or by e-mail at pdarst@exponent-telegram.com.

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