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W.Va. still fighting negative self-image

by Nora Edinger

REGIONAL EDITOR

In a culture in which image is everything, or close to it, West Virginia seems to be suffering from a split personality.

On the plus side, rolling hills and rushing rivers create a recreational paradise of international renown. On the minus side, statistics keep rolling in that put West Virginia at or near the bottom in categories ranging from per-capita income to toothlessness.

So, how do mountaineers form and promote an accurate image of themselves? It's not easy, experts say.

"You've got to be careful to compare what has real meaning," said Dana Waldo, president and chief executive officer of West Virginia Roundtable, an economic development organization made up of state business and educational leaders.

"If you're talking about per-capita income, you can compare that to other states," Waldo said of statistics that generally matter. "That is an indicator of the prosperity of the state's economy.

"Who cares what the statistics are on toothlessness?" Waldo said of numbers he said matter less.

While their relative importance has yet to be seen, some statistics generated by the Roundtable confirm the split-image scenario. In a study done about a year ago, West Virginians indicated they view themselves positively, but are apprehensive about how they are seen from outside the state, Waldo said.

"What we did find is that West Virginians are very proud of their state in terms of its natural beauty and the friendliness of its people," Waldo said.

Stanley Cohen, Ph.D., professor of psychology at West Virginia University, said he is not surprised to see such a split image, adding it is entirely possible to have both a negative and positive image of various elements of one's self at the same time.

Although West Virginians who have remained in the state are clearly aware of its assets, Cohen said, a steady stream of bad-image news that dates back to the turn of the 20th century has taken its toll.

"If you tell people something enough, they begin to believe it," Cohen said, pointing to a famous study in which black children consistently picked white dolls over black dolls. Psychologists believed the data showed the results of negative images of black culture.

"To some extent, people in West Virginia do have less self esteem because of what they have read about themselves," Cohen said.

While individuals are sorting out how they feel about their state and public officials are trying to deal with the root problems behind the negative statistics, other entities know exactly what image they want to promote.

"We're trying to position West Virginia as the outdoor recreation capital of the East," said Robert Reintsema, state commissioner of commerce and tourism.

An April study conducted by the state Division of Tourism at state rest stops may indicate some success. Out-of-staters, especially in the Baby Boom age bracket, said they have a more positive image of the Mountain State than of Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Maryland, North Carolina or Tennessee.

"I'm pleased to report West Virginia finished first," Reintsema said, admitting there may be some bias because the survey was conducted on state soil.

Reintsema believes the high ranking is directly related to West Virginia becoming firmly established as the "Colorado" of the East.

"Colorado has abundant fishing; we have abundant fishing. They have whitewater; we have whitewater; They have the Broadmoor; we have the Greenbrier. They have John Denver's "Rocky Mountain High;" we have "Country Roads," Reintsema said. "The comparison is incredible."

However, Melissa Black, an AAA spokesperson from Pittsburgh, said the most popular regional vacation sites based on summer 2000 customer requests for discount packages do not include West Virginia. They are, instead, Ocean City, Md., Williamsburg, Va., Myrtle Beach, S.C., Niagara Falls, N.Y., and Cleveland, Ohio.

Admitting there is still work to do, Reintsema said the state has had a series of image boosts in the last few years including having the lowest crime rate in the nation, developing a successful Adopt-A-Highway and wildflower planting program, and turning around a former public relations nightmare with the development of the Hatfield-McCoy Trail.

"We can take advantage of it now," Reintsema said of the internationally famous feud between two large, extended families on the West Virginia/Kentucky border.

Cohen suspects the major tourism thrust will also have an effect on West Virginians' self esteem, especially if they begin to travel the state more extensively themselves.

A West Virginia resident of nearly 30 years, Cohen said the public relations effort has even swayed him.

"When I see an ad in the New York Times for the Greenbrier, I'm reading it and I'm saying, "Yeah, we are very fortunate to have (such) a resort in the state."

Regional editor Nora Edinger can be reached at 626-1403.

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