THE LAGGING ECONOMY - Shortfalls And Bumpy Roads


By Bob Weaver

Much like pot-holed, crooked and bumpy roads many of West Virginia's rural counties, lacking poor access to interstate highways, jobs and commerce, are now being left behind in other infrastructure, telecommunications.

A University of Texas study just released says there is a shortfall of computers, internet access and worker skills. Appalachia is being left behind, again. Obtaining affordable telecommunications is a major barrier to education and economic development

Lower-cost broad band technology, favored by small and medium-sized businesses is not widely available.

The "Great Societies" Appalachian Regional Commission promised over 35 years ago to bring roads, water, sewage and other infrastructure to the poorest of counties, but a Columbus Dispatch story showed most of the money went where the money already was, populated areas with lots of jobs.

Ever since, nearly all economic development models have failed to help rural areas, including the give-a-way programs. Over 5000 light-industry jobs have left the region in the last year, and more are going south. Remember that "giant sucking sound" that is supposed to open America to the world market, and make better lives for the working class.

Our central West Virginia counties have continued to exist in a black hole, struggling with the nation's highest unemployment, no clout, scattered population and no voting power.

Worse yet, there is no recognized spokesperson for the cause.

It is sad when many counties grovel for the pork from the Budget Digest, just to exist.

There is an increased intensity of "move or die," with a broader vision of poverty on the horizon for those who remain.

In counties like Calhoun, there will be few kids to educate and few to buy goods and services. Those with retirement incomes are among the survivors, enjoying country life.

One well-known elected official, when I spoke to him about infrastructure and basic jobs, said "You'd better write more grants."

Most government money streams, like the ARC, require local matching money, which is generally just not there.

West Virginia's new $200 million economic package, which was originally directed toward downtown Wheeling development, has created over 200 requests from West Virginia towns and counties.

Where do the smallest and most rural counties stand on accessing this money for local projects? The grants require private investment or local matching money. It does not exist for those on the bottom.

It is a mystery, where Roane, Ritchie, Braxton or Gilmer will come up with matching funds. They have submitted grant applications totaling $25 million, plus some money for the proposed NASCAR park at Flatwoods. They must have a few local businessmen with deep pockets, or maybe they are better connected.

The Local Option Economic Development Amendment will be on the West Virginia ballot this fall. It will allow the use of "tax increment financing" to fund economic development within counties, but voters declined such a proposal in 1998, viewing it as just another tax increase.

The WVU Bureau of Business and Economic Research reported growth will be slower in West Virginia in the next 10 years, compared to the rest of the nation.

The traditionally high-paying industries, coal, chemicals and steel, can expect some hard times, although production levels could remain high, it will take fewer workers to do the job.

A slow growth rate, according to the WVU study, means sluggish income growth.

West Virginian's net incomes are nearly 30% below the national average.

The study says West Virginia must invest in physical improvements, highways, industrial sites, water and sewer lines, plus telecomunications.

The study was critical that 65% of all West Virginians, 25 or older did not earn a high school diploma. This is the highest rate in the nation.

Social commentators suggest West Virginian's rarely speak out for their interests, join causes or go to the polls. They "Lay down and take it," a lack of self-worth or esteem. "I was told if I didn't get a good education, this would happen to me." Emerson said "Poverty consists of feeling poor."

Almost every time I write a gloomy article about the economy, I seem compelled to speak well of this land, its beauty and livability, which must seem contradictory. It seems tragic we must wallow in such problems.

Hur Herald from Sunny Cal
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