For years, the economic news in West Virginia has too often been bad. Coal mine shutdowns, plant closings and layoffs have been painfully common occurrences.
However, at long last that is changing. Governor Jim Justice has been cutting ribbons right and left while touting major investments in the state.
The state Office of Economic Development estimates there have been at least 18 significant economic announcements since January 2021. Those projects represent $3.6 billion in economic investments and more than 3,800 jobs either created or retained.
And those numbers do not include any other private investments that have not involved the Office of Economic Development.
OED Secretary Mitch Carmichael said on Talkline Tuesday that, as of July, there were 769,000 people working in West Virginia, up from 642,000 in April 2020. “That’s 127,000 more people working in that period of time, which is the fastest growth rate in the history of West Virginia,” Carmichael said.
However, context is in order. The state was in the throes of the pandemic in April 2020. A more meaningful comparison would be pre-pandemic. According to Workforce West Virginia, in April 2019, 756,000 individuals were working in West Virginia. By that metric, West Virginia’s employment is just slightly better than it was before Covid.
Still, West Virginia has bounced back strong from the pandemic-induced recession, the state’s economy is growing, and jobs are being added. Carmichael said more announcements are coming.
“We have a prospect list that is very vibrant,” he said.
West Virginia is also making inroads in green energy. Justice announced last week that Pure Watercraft is going to manufacture electric pontoon boats at Beach Bottom in Brooke County and GreenPower Motor Company is preparing to manufacture battery-powered school buses in South Charleston.
The lithium-ion battery maker Sparkz has plans for a manufacturing plant off U.S. Route 50 in Taylor County. The company said it will train former miners for positions at the facility.
Nucor Corporation, the largest American steel producer, is building a state-of-the-art mill in Mason County that will use electric power to turn scrap metal into reusable steel. The company has committed to a 35 percent reduction in its greenhouse gas intensity by 2030.
Carmichael said West Virginia is becoming more attractive because of an improved business climate, the integration of the community and technical college system into workforce development, comparably lower operating costs and the willingness of the state to work with companies.
That last piece is important. I have interviewed representatives of Nucor, GreenPower Motor and Pure Watercraft. Each said they were impressed by the cooperation they received from state officials, Justice and Senators Manchin and Capito.
I have sworn off using the term “game changer” when talking about economic announcements. We have been burned too many times by lofty promises that fail to produce expected results. So, as always, when discussing West Virginia’s economic potential, caution is advised.
However, the development announcements and the subsequent opportunities just since last year are significant and maybe, just maybe, they represent a bending of the economic arc away from the disappointment of the past and toward a more prosperous future.