MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — A yearly event with the goal of bringing eastern panhandle business leaders and legislators together aims to bridge the gap sometimes felt between the region and Charleston.

Seven delegates, a state senator and around 100 community members gathered for the Martinsburg-Berkeley County Chamber of Commerce’s Annual Legislative Outlook Forum in Martinsburg Friday. Each legislator had five minutes to provide a preview of their goals for the upcoming legislative session in January. This was followed by a question and answer session, with questions written by attendees.

“I enjoyed it,” said District 62 Delegate-elect Tom Bibby. “I enjoy anytime I can talk in public to people about things that we all care about, I think these are good opportunities to do so. In this case here, we have the business community. Like I said, I think business is part of everything we do in life. So I think it’s a good event.”

From all of the questions asked, certain topics like economic development, roads, the opioid epidemic and taxes were highlighted. An underlying theme of the detachment many eastern panhandle residents feel from actions and discussions in Charleston.

“It’s always struck me, because we moved here in 2001,” said Bibby. “How everything is Charleston-centric yet all of the income and everything that goes down to Charleston comes out of the eastern panhandle. It kind of goes with just the whole logistics of the whole thing, Charleston being where it is. I understand how that works.”

Del. Paul Espinosa (R-Jefferson, 66) focused on inconsistencies in funding for higher education.

“Sadly our eastern panhandle institutions, both Shepherd and Blue Ridge (Community & Technical College), are near the low-end of the spectrum as far as funding. There really is no funding model in place. It’s strictly a budget item.”

Espinosa said he is thankful for recent developments from the Blue Ribbon Commission on Higher Education. The program is on the verge of proposing a new, looser governance system for West Virginia’s four-year institutions. This proposal would do away with the current Higher Education Policy Commission.

“I’ve been working, and my colleagues in the eastern panhandle have been working, very hard to educate our fellow members about the disparity and try to come about a process by which we can bring rationality and fairness to how we fund our institutions.”

Others who participated in the forum included 16th Dist. Sen. Charles Trump, Del. Daryl Cowles (R-Morgan, 58), Del. Marshall Wilson (R-Berkeley, 60) and Del. Jason Barrett (D-Berkeley, 61). Delegates-elect Larry Kump (59), John Hardy (63) also joined the panel.

The 2019 legislative session begins January 9.