CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia, where per capita income and gross domestic product still rank near the bottom of the country, is running its government economic development agency without its top three leaders.
Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher was forced to resign this month, Development Office executive director Kris Hopkins left of his own accord and Josh Jarrell, the deputy secretary for Commerce, was pushed out prior to Thrasher’s departure.
That team had advocated for greater investment in site development for projects that pop up with sensitive timetables, as well as more money to market West Virginia for development.
Clayton Burch, who has been second in command at the state Department of Education, last week was named interim Commerce secretary. Gov. Jim Justice has said he would like to name a long-term secretary as soon as possible.
Hopkins’s old development director job has been posted, noting that the position oversees a budget of more than $400 million of state and federal funding for an agency that “leads the drive to recruit new businesses domestically and abroad, and to retain and expand industries in the state.”
Justice has said in news conferences that the names at the Commerce department matter less than his own name, relationships and efforts. He used West Virginia’s potential $73 billion deal with China Energy as an example.
“I can tell you just as simple as mud how it happened,” Justice said. “It happened through a friendship with myself and Donald Trump. Donald Trump realizes wholeheartedly that we have a terrible trade imbalance with China and he is on those people and on those people like stink on you-know what.”
He went on to say of the deal, “So how does West Virginia come into being? Do we really think it came into being because of our Commerce department? Of course it didn’t come into being because of that. It came into being because of the relationship between the two of us and the president trying to help his friend and trying to help what he loves, and he loves West Virginia.”
In recent weeks, the China deal has been muddied by tension over Trump’s tariffs.
Whether the team is in place to weather a storm like that is unclear.
Veterans in West Virginia economic development say the consistent efforts of the Commerce department do matter, including the relationships forged by the agency’s leaders and the ongoing work of staff.
“What kills every deal and kills every relationship is uncertainty. And right now that’s what we have to battle against,” said David Satterfield, who was executive director of the West Virginia Development Office from 2001 through early 2005
“We have to put our best foot forward. Losing those three guys will cause uncertainty, which will really put many of our large projects and much of the forward progress on hold. People looking to make investments in West Virginia are looking for absolute certainty.”
That’s because people looking to make investments of any size are banking their future on those decisions, said Satterfield, who now serves as director of asset development for the Office of Research and Economic Development at West Virginia University.
“In my mind, the most immediate challenge is not forging the new opportunities but maintaining the existing ones,” Satterfield said last week in a telephone interview.
“If you and I have had conversations for five years, you’ve come to trust my expertise, my ability to say perhaps what the state climate is like, the state context, the current environment, what the state may be able to do for you.
“It gets to be where companies that are going to make tens of millions of dollars in investments in our state — it’s relationships and trust.”
Having a governor in the middle of his term helps provide a consistent atmosphere, Satterfield said. But the expectation of consistency also extends to those who are dealing directly with investors.
“As you and I are coming to the place to do any kind of transaction – it’s essential that when we get to that point that what we said was going to happen happens,” Satterfield said. “The governor and his team are in place, but losing those top three officials is quite a loss for the state.”
“As long as you have the core group of that industrial development group on the working day to day level, it should be in fairly good shape,” said Snider, who was executive director of the West Virginia Development Office from 1997 to 2001.
“A lot of times you think the management of the organization is so super important. They’re the spokesman a lot of times for what’s going on with the agency, not the one that does the work.”
Snider is now executive director of the Bullitt County Economic Development Authority in Kentucky.
Key to continued success, Snider said, is continuity with leadership in the Development Office, as well as with Tourism. “As long as the core group is there,” Snider said.
In the broad view, disruption is sometimes just a fact of life in state development agencies, said Ron Starner, a frequent contributor to Site Selection magazine.
“These types of situations – the sudden departure of one or more key economic development leaders at the state level – are not uncommon,” Starner said.
“In fact, it happens with regularity in most states at least once every four years, if not more often. Of far greater importance is the policy in place at the top and the responsiveness of the entire state economic development team. We’ve seen Texas and Ohio weather sudden changes at the top in recent years and it barely slowed them down.”
With projects like the potential China Energy investment in natural gas, the hope is to maintain consistent efforts, said Anne Blankenship, executive director of the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association.
“So many good things have happened already, and we just want that momentum to continue,” Blankenship said last week.