CHARLESTON, W.Va. — If there’s a mission the candidates for West Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District might agree on, it’s improving the economy of southern West Virginia.
How to get there is how they might part ways.
Southern West Virginia’s economy has struggled in recent years, and predictions for coming few years aren’t a whole lot better.
The most recent West Virginia Economic Outlook published by the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at West Virginia University lays out the region’s sluggish economy.
The report forecasts annual population losses for most of the counties in southern West Virginia through 2022. It forecasts employment growth of less than .06 percent in most of the counties over the next four years.
And it the report forecasts real personal income growth of only 1 or 2 percent for most of southern West Virginia during that period.
So trying to help will be a real challenge for whoever is elected.
There’s no shortage of candidates who want to try. The seat opened when incumbent Congressman Evan Jenkins decided to run for U.S. Senate. Primary Election Day is Tuesday.
Republicans in the race include Delegate Carol Miller of Huntington, former state Republican Party Chairman Conrad Lucas of Huntington, Delegate Rupie Phillips of Man, Delegate Marty Gearheart of Bluefield and Dr. Ayne Amjad of Beckley.
Democrats include state Senator Richard Ojeda of Logan, Delegate Shirley Love of Oak Hill and Paul Davis, general manager and chief of the Tri-State Transit Authority, headquartered in Huntington.
Candidates Rick Snuffer and Philip Payton, Republicans, and Janice “Byrd” Hagerman, a Democrat, registered to run but have reported no fundraising or spending to the Federal Elections Commission.
MetroNews spoke with candidates about how they would try to help southern West Virginia’s economy.
Infrastructure is one of the greatest needs for southern West Virginia, said Love, a former broadcaster.
“One thing I’d probably go for most would be infrastructure because it’s all about jobs and the economy,” he said. “Without infrastructure, I don’t care how much land you have for industrial parks.”
Love says the region needs greater connections through roads, water and sewer and communications. “If you don’t have infrastructure there, you’re out of luck. They just don’t come,” he said.
Love sees himself collaborating with representatives from other rural states with similar situations.
“You have help when you get a coalition of congressmen for the same subject,” he said. “It’s a lot easier to get results. Let’s put it that way.”
Referencing a common refrain about a “War on Coal,” Love said the region needs a reconstruction effort.
“After a war, we have reconstruction. We’ve had no reconstruction here,” he said. “You drive through some of these small towns, it looks like a Third World Country. Businesses are boarded up. It’s devastating to look at it. We’ve had none of that from the federal government so far.”
Ojeda, who served 25 years in the Army, said West Virginia needs to position itself for more manufacturing opportunities.
“We know we can create some of the best labor folks when they come out of our vocational centers,” Ojeda said. “We need to give those folks an option.
“Technology. We need to diversify our economy. We know that. We know we still have a use for coal and we need to let our coal miners mine it. But very few coal miners say they want their sons or daughters to turn 18 and follow them into the mine.”
Low cost of living can be a draw for the state, Ojeda said.
“Because we have a low cost of living in southern West Virginia versus other areas, we might be able to entice people to come here, bring their businesses here — especially in technology.”
And Ojeda, who has been an advocate for legalization of medical marijuana, said more can be done to promote hemp industries.
“Hemp can absolutely bring in hundreds of jobs in itself,” he said. “You can build homes now out of hemp. There’s not one thing out of a hemp plant that goes to waste. Let’s go ahead and embrace them.”
Ojeda said the coal industry should continue to be supported, but the region needs to grow in other ways.
“I believe absolutely we can get our economy back up and running again in southern West Virginia,” he said. “We kept all our eggs in one basket but never wanted anything else to compete with coal. I believe in coal wholeheartedly, but we need to offer our people more than just one industry to rely upon.”
Davis is the longtime director of the Tri-State Transit Authority. That’s the agency that runs Huntington’s public bus system, and it also played a big role in the development of the Pullman Square project, a mix of restaurants and retail in the city.
“What we created was an opportunity for the private sector to come in and invest,” Davis said. “You have to create livable communities.”
Vibrant communities like Lewisburg and the communities surrounding the New River Gorge give Davis reason to believe more towns can be lifestyle destinations.
“Those are examples we can look at and say ‘We built the infrastructure and look what happened,” he said.
“It all goes back to infrastructure. Why do people want to be there. That’s what Congress can do. Congress can bring dollars so the business can succeed and grow and give people a reason to be there.”
Coal will continue to be an important part of the southern West Virginia economy, Davis said.
“I don’t believe we’ll see coal in its heyday the way it was,” he said. “But it’s going to be important. But now is the time for us to start diversifying, and we need to look at opportunities.
“What we have in West Virginia is some of the most beautiful mountains and country in the world, in the United States. So tourism is going to play an important role.”
Building on West Virginia’s advantages will require investment, he said.
“Unless we start investing in southern West Virginia — roads, water, infrastructure — we’re not going to get what we need. Congress can bring money and dollars to help us improve those roads; we can have all these nice amenities.”
The region’s many challenges and the different regions within the region means there’s no one particular answer to economic growth, Phillips said.
“It’s not a short answer. Southern West Virginia is in a very unique position,” said Phillips, who has worked in the coal industry and as a sales representative.
Completion of the King Coal Highway through McDowell, Mercer, Mingo, Wyoming and Wayne counties is a top priority. So is completion of the Coalfields Expressway, connecting the West Virginia Turnpike at Beckley with US 23 at Slate, Virginia.
“I want to make sure I’m there for the ribbon cutting ceremony and when we’ve got cars going,” Phillips said.
“We’re right in the middle of a good position to serve the East Coast up and down and provide some distribution centers, some manufacturing places.”
Phillips was a coalfield Democrat and then an independent before changing his registration for Republican. He has made a name for himself in West Virginia politics for unwavering support for the coal industry.
In the phone conversation, it took him a while to get around to discussing coal. He said his support remains strong but he also recognizes the need to grow additional sectors of West Virginia’s economy.
“Everybody wants to say I’m all about coal,” Phillips said. “Coal in my mind is what has kept West Virginia and this country going. But I am a firm believer that we need to diversify.”
Phillips sees himself as a congressman who focuses on selling the state’s advantages.
“I want to go to D.C. and sell West Virginia,” he said. “I’m wanting to go and show these corporations: ‘Hey, you want to be in West Virginia, let me show you West Virginia. Let’s be friends. Let me bring you to West Virginia and show you what we can offer you and your company.”
Geartheart, who runs a business called Gearheart Enterprises, says his congressional votes would produce the conditions for economic growth.
“The first has to do with taxes. It has to do with the continued lowering of taxes, squeezing the brackets from five to three, so everybody has more ability to participate in the economy and raise all tides,” Gearheart said.
He’s also an advocate for continued scrutiny of federal regulation.
“Continue the Trump plan of reducing regulations, making it less onerous, particularly for the energy industry so they can do what they do best.”
Banking on economic growth, Gearheart says he would then focus on infrastructure.
“We do have infrastructure needs. And if we can expand this economy, there should be means to do things like finish the King Coal Highway. It is a highway that has a great ability to advance commerce through the coalfields.”
Asked what industries might be ripe for growth, Gearheart said it’s generally not up to government to decide. Instead, he emphasized creating conditions where businesses can make money.
“There are a variety of things,” he said. “I don’t know that it’s government’s place to tell folks what kind of business they should be involved in.”
Amjad, a physician specializing in internal medicine and preventive healthcare, says her focus is on education and healthcare.
“That’s the foundation for anyone to have a good job. If you don’t have health, you can’t go to work,” she said.
“I also believe on working on our educational system and really supporting small businesses.”
She said her background contributes to those priorities.
“You can bring all the jobs here and do all the things, but if you don’t have people who are healthy and drug free, they don’t qualify to work,” Amjad said. “All those incentives are great, but you have to start on a fundamental level.”
Small businesses need greater support, she said.
“I’m a big supporter of small businesses,” Amjad said. “I still go to the local gas station. Small businesses are what really keep the economy driven.”
She, too, sees a need for infrastructure improvement — particularly roads.
“Everyone passes through West Virginia from New York to Florida,” she said. “West Virginia has potential to be a gateway to other communities. The main roads are decent, but if we could make those better we would do well.”
Conrad Lucas, former state Republican Party chairman, sees a two-pronged approach.
“It’s a combination of stabilization and looking forward. We need to continue to eliminate the regulations that are so crippling on our coal industry — getting our coal miners back to work and stabilizing that industry and putting it in position where it can withstand any future attacks is first and foremost,” Lucas said.
Aside from strengthening the coal industry, Lucas would like to help put southern West Virginia’s economy in position to diversify.
“I’m excited the president is discussing an infrastructure bill, which I hope to have an opportunity to vote on post-November. I see some opportunities for West Virginia with things like increased broadband and strengthening our physical infrastructure,” he said.
“We need to be prepared to market ourselves to existing sectors. Everything ranging from manufacturing to technology to developing ourselves in a way that we are eligible to be at the forefront of whatever the next sector to develop is.”
Carol Miller, a small business owner who has a bison farm, described the economy as a matter of people’s personal struggles and goals.
While the other candidates for this story spoke about their economic ideas on the telephone, Miller’s campaign submitted a statement via email.
The statement had to do with her personal experience with the loss of a baby calf on her bison farm.
“As a farmer, one thing we lost that day was an investment. That calf would not go on to sire more bison, it was a loss of this year’s stock, and it would not go on to feed families in West Virginia in a few years. As a farmer, we lost some income that day,” Miller stated.
“As a mother, I understand that it’s more than just numbers in a ledger. That calf was a baby, part of our herd. Too many politicians just see the numbers and forget there are real people behind figures. A job isn’t just a number in a report, every good job is food on our dining room tables and it’s a hopeful future for our families.”