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Panel says W.Va. likely to weather recession better than most s

by Nora Edinger

REGIONAL EDITOR

Several area business leaders shared their thoughts on the recession for this panel discussion-style report compiled by Regional Editor Nora Edinger.

They are:

- Ralph Bean Jr. -- a member of the law firm Steptoe & Johnson, Bean works in business law and is based in Clarksburg. He was previously president of the former Hope Gas Inc.

- Zeny Cunanan -- president and chief executive officer of Galaxy Global of Fairmont, Cunanan works in high-technology contracts. Many of them are with the U.S. Department of Defense and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

n Ike Morris -- a Gilmer County businessman with wide and varied interests, Morris primarily focuses on the energy industry, specifically oil and gas. He is also a notable benefactor to higher education.

- Woody Thrasher -- co-founder and president of Thrasher Engineering Inc. of Clarksburg. That firm has extensive highway contracts in addition to its building-related work.

- Dr. Tom Witt -- director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at West Virginia University in Morgantown.

Q. What effect is the recession having in West Virginia, especially in the North Central region?

A. Bean -- "We may not be as significantly affected by this recession ... because of our location."

Bean believes Americans' travel fears and West Virginia's tourism potential will help even out the in-state economy.

He noted the state unemployment rate is low and the energy industry is doing well, two more factors that may help West Virginia come out ahead of other states.

Cunanan -- "I don't think we have felt the actual recession yet. I still feel that people are ... not really tightening their belts."

Cunanan suspects consumers will cut back after the holidays.

In her line of work, however, she said defense concerns are more than balancing out the recession.

"It will actually mean additional work because of security and defense."

Morris -- "We're very fortunate in Glenville. We have Glenville State College, and a big federal prison is being built," Morris said of two large employers that are somewhat recession-proof.

"You don't ever hear of a federal prison going broke."

On the flipside, he believes Gilmer and surrounding counties are never as affected by economic downtimes as some areas since they are in continual recession because of their isolation.

Thrasher -- "The recession has dampened private investment in this state. We've seen a significant reduction in the development of private sites in manufacturing and commercial."

Thrasher said the slowdown started in mid-2000. Development around the Benedum Industrial Park in Bridgeport and along the Interstate 79 corridor may be down as much as 70 percent. Those areas had been booming in previous years.

Highway funding is also down from previous years, he said, while water/sewer projects have yet to take a hit. He believes the success of state energy interests may bode well for smoothing out the economic waves statewide.

Witt -- "We have not seen some of the major changes that some of the other parts of the country have already seen," Witt said of West Virginia lagging behind on national economic trends. "But, that doesn't mean we're going to escape."

He said what appears to be a slow holiday shopping season may be the region's first symptom, although that is hard to chart because this state does not release county-by-county sales tax reports.

He believes job loss is ahead. According to the bureau's chief economist, George Hammond, the losses will hit the manufacturing sector hardest.

Q. What advice do you have for business and industry?

A. Bean -- "Many companies, in times of recession, curtail expenses where they can. I personally think that the last expense that should be cut is employees. It contributes to the downward spiraling."

Cunanan -- "We have had recessions in the past and we have recovered. I have very strong faith in the entire American economy."

Like many of her colleagues, she views layoffs as a last resort. She believes owners and managers should look for additional types of work to keep their employees or help place the workers elsewhere.

"If each and every one of us would do that we will not have any recessions at all."

Morris -- "It's going to make me a better businessman. When you sell your product for less, you've got to find some way to produce it cheaper."

He believes the best managers will rise to the occasion and fine tune their operation. Others will drop out.

Thrasher -- "We avoid cost cutting and layoffs usually. ... It's important to hold our organization together in lean times so that we can produce in good times."

He said businesses that rely entirely on private income, as opposed to government contracts, may have a harder time doing that, however.

Witt -- "If I were a business owner ... I would look at what can be successfully eliminated or reduced."

He believes recession can be good in the long term. He said good managers will focus on their most successful endeavors, eliminate unsuccessful ones and poise themselves for greater profits in the future.

He cautions businesses, however, against a huge cutback in capital outlays, especially in technology.

"Those types of investments are going to be needed to keep up with the competition."

Q. What advice do you have for government?

A. Bean -- He is optimistic that interest-rate cuts and increased government spending may already be reversing the recession, which he hopes will be over by mid-2002.

He would like to see a continuation of such policies.

Cunanan -- She would like to see government spending more money on development that directly leads to jobs.

Morris -- "They need to generate more higher education money," Morris said of planning for a more prosperous future.

A long-time supporter of Glenville State, Morris said such small colleges are key to reaching more students and maintaining a stable employment base in lower population areas.

He would also like to see an increased emphasis on tourism, which he believes should make up about 25 percent of development spending.

Morris cautions government should hold back in other areas, specifically tax breaks and government subsidies. He sees the former as a blow to local economies and the latter as a reward for bad management.

Thrasher -- "The single biggest issue is that West Virginia must remain competitive with surrounding states in its ability to attract basic manufacturing."

Thrasher believes a key to doing that is lowering workers' compensation costs for businesses. He said the state could do that by tightening up on the qualifications for disability status.

Witt -- Witt would like government to use this slow time to begin planning at least five years into the future.

He believes many fiscal problems, particularly those involving pension funds, could be avoided if government would project income and expenses that far out.

Regional Editor Nora Edinger can be reached at 626-1447 or by e-mail at nedinger@exponent-telegram.com.

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