CHARLESTON, W.Va. — With the forced resignation of Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher, the state government’s economic development agency is now without its top three officials.
Gov. Jim Justice asked for and received Thrasher’s resignation Thursday after extended controversies over how the state was administering long-term flood relief money through the Department of Commerce.
Thrasher’s top deputies are gone, too.
Development Office executive director Kris Hopkins left of his own accord. Josh Jarrell, the deputy secretary for Commerce, was pushed out prior to Thrasher’s departure because of the flood relief issues.
“Outside of the governor, the Commerce secretary is the biggest salesperson this state has,” House Finance Chairman Eric Nelson said today.
“In my eight years of serving, this particular secretary and this team were as solid as any team in state government. They made great, great strides.”
Their departures leave the agency without a lot of leadership at the top but with a lot on its plate.
Those involved with economic development in West Virginia were advising quick efforts to straighten the ship.
“I don’t know what plan the governor and his office are working on, but they have substantial resources and they certainly have the means to make something happen very quickly,” said Steve Roberts, director of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce.
“I’m sure that they intend to do that because it’s in our state’s interests to make sure there’s continuity and to not have a fumble here at this critical stage of the development process.”
Foremost is a deal with China Energy that could be worth $87 billion in investments over 20 years.
Thrasher was called a “superstar” by Gov. Justice when that deal was announced last November. But it remained shrouded in mystery. Specifics about the investments were sparse, and there has not yet been tangible benefit.
“We all remember the terrific job that Secretary Thrasher did when he was in China in representing our state so well,” Roberts said today on MetroNews’ “Talkline.”
“Apparently he and the governor at that time were working hand-in-glove. We know it’s for real because Chinese people have visited with us, Chinese people have visited our office.”
Thrasher urged state leaders to continue to focus on the possibilities of the China deal.
“We can’t let this opportunity get by us,” Roberts said. “We can’t fumble the ball right here.”
“Some very important development issues are on the table and need personal attention,” Roberts said.
Thrasher had pushed for greater state investment in site development, but for the past two years the Legislature had not been able to find the money in tight budgets.
“If we really think all we have to do is pass right-to-work, tort reform, workers comp reform, and they’re going to flock in, that’s not reality. The reality is, that gets you a seat at the table,” Thrasher told lawmakers last fall.
“If you do not give us what we need to prepare these sites and incentivize those companies to come into West Virginia we will remain just like we are.”
Senate Finance Chairman Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, praised Thrasher’s knowledge and efforts.
But he said West Virginia also needs to continue focusing on an environment where development can thrive.
“You know, Woody Thrasher was at the forefront of dealing with the potential China investment. He’s put a lot of potentially good things in place,” Blair said.
“But I really don’t think it’s so much the person or the personality that makes the difference but it’s the policies we’ve put in place, the behaviors of every agency in West Virginia.”
Blair said whoever the next Commerce secretary will be should be able to sell West Virginia’s attributes.
“It’s not good enough to put a sign up saying we’re open for business. You’ve got to demonstrate that,” Blair said. “So what Woody Thrasher was advertising to the world was the changes we’ve made in West Virginia to have greater job opportunities.”