WVU business analyst discusses WV's economic future | Business | wvgazettemail.com – Charleston Gazette-Mail

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Generally cloudy. Temps nearly steady in the mid 30s. Winds WNW at 10 to 15 mph..
Generally clear skies. Low 23F. Winds light and variable.
Updated: November 26, 2021 @ 2:43 pm

Business Reporter
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John Deskins recites a plethora of obstacles when it comes to West Virginia’s economic future. None outrank any other.
For instance, get the director of West Virginia University’s Bureau for Business and Economic Research talking about natural gas. Sounds hopeful, right? After all, the state has lots of it.
Most benefits, however, have not drifted outside the counties where gas is drilled. One tack, Deskins says, is to experience spinoff jobs from gas generation, such as the making of plastics and chemicals. But then you need sites for factories.
“We want to keep the gas here,” Deskins says. “In broad terms, we want to get those companies from Ohio or Pennsylvania to settle here.
“We’re trying to entice them, but it’s hard. You’d like to go to other states’ officials and present them with a list of sites. Flat, have a certain number of acres, have already met with the standards of a Brownfields cleanup [removal of toxic waste]. We’re at a deficit on site availability.”
Deskins, who recently spoke to the West Virginia National Gorge Development Authority, is a longtime observer, researcher and authority on the Mountain State’s economy. He is also an associate professor of economics at WVU.
As the year draws to an end, Deskins shared his thoughts on pivotal issues that continue to face West Virginia’s economy.
As for site availability to broaden the natural gas economy, Deskins said most out-of-state sites with toxic waste have been cleaned up. When a state doesn’t offer much to start with, telling someone moderately interested that they must spend millions of dollars on cleanup doesn’t help.
“A new company isn’t going to take over that site unless someone has cleaned it up,” said Deskins.
Then there’s the land itself, whether polluted or not. Factories are hard to maintain on mountainsides. Then there’s the state’s labor class. After a 3% population dip in the past 10 years — West Virginia was one of only three states to experience a loss — the Mountain State is left with fewer workers ready to perform modern jobs.
“We have a shortage of workers who are educated, well-trained and drug free,” Deskins said.
Even the population loss has a darker lining. Not only did the state lose population, it also lost the battle of death versus births. More than 4,000 residents died than were born last year, an ongoing trend that takes a long time to reverse. It’s far easier to replace population loss related to jobs, Deskins says.
So where is the hope?
“To talk about West Virginia as a whole, some parts of the state are doing well,” Deskins said. “We’d rather you move there than move out of state completely. We can hope that the strengths of stronger areas can bleed over to other areas.”
Tourism is a perpetual source of optimism, Deskins acknowledges, and more can be done to promote it. In his speech to the Gorge authority, he said progress in that area’s economy won’t be rapid or dramatic.
It will be late next year before the area fully recovers from COVID-19, he predicts. In the meantime, he said he hopes more entrepreneurs serving park patrons call the gorge home, accompanied by continued strong marketing by the state.
The federal government named the gorge area a national park in early 2021, sparking a wave of visitors this past summer.
Another outdoor-centered initiative is Ascend WV, a venture funded by new Marshall University President Brad Smith, who funded the venture before taking his academic post.
The program pays remote workers to take up residence in West Virginia, but must overcome a lack of broadband before it can expand statewide. Presently, the program is attracting workers to Morgantown, Lewisburg and Shepherdstown, three broadband bonanzas compared to much of the rest of the state. 
“Not having broadband is basically a deal breaker for just about any kind of economic development today, especially attracting new residents,” Deskins said.
Greg Stone covers business. He can be reached at 304-348-5124 or gstone@hdmediallc.com.
Business Reporter
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