BECKLEY, W.Va. — The 2019 New River Gorge Area Economic Outlook forum was held in Beckley on Wednesday, with a wide-ranging discussion of promising developments and future challenges for southern West Virginia’s economic health.
John Deskins, the executive director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at West Virginia University, was the guest speaker for the annual event, which included a summary of industrial and small business activity in the region, hiring trends, and growth projections through 2024.
During his presentation, Deskins noted Raleigh County as being the economic center for southern West Virginia, accounting for nearly two-thirds of the four-county employment base, which includes Fayette, Nicholas and Summers counties. He told MetroNews much of the growth since the beginning of 2017 has been generated in Raleigh County, with employers adding nearly 1,300 jobs.
“We have a more diversified industrial mix, more things are happening here in Raleigh,” he said. “The pattern we’ve seen in recent years is the more urban counties have been doing better, the more rural counties have been facing more challenges. Raleigh’s more urban in nature, more of a manufacturing base, in some ways. That helps the county, fundamentally.”
The county’s per capita income averaged $39,800 during 2018, ranking it 15th-highest among West Virginia’s 55 counties and slightly below the statewide average. The countywide unemployment rate is projected to remain near 5 percent through 2024.
Though he acknowledged coal has long-standing historical ties to the region’s economic base, Deskins said the future of the domestic mining industry likely will be, at best, problematic for workers.
“We’re more dependent on exports now than we use to be. Exports have been a big part of the reason why coal has bounced back from 80 to 95 million tons over the past three years, but export markets just tend to be more volatile than what we see with domestic markets,” he said. “We expect coal, generally, to be stable with some gradual erosion over the next few years, but there’s just more uncertainty because of that greater reliance on exports.”
Deskins said he expects travel and tourism-related businesses to continue growing at a rate comparable to the rate of expansion over the previous decade, creating an increasing element of commerce diversity.
“We don’t just diversify into random things, right? We diversify into areas where have a natural comparative advantage. That comparative advantage is very important in West Virginia, with the natural beauty, with the scenic amenities that we have, with outdoor recreation and hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing, whitewater rafting. We have such great assets. There’s so much more potential for us to capitalize on those assets,” he said.
According to Deskins, the region will continue to experience loss of population because of migration and a higher-than-average mortality rate partly attributable to the ongoing drug abuse crisis in southern West Virginia, though he predicted the trend would be somewhat offset in Raleigh County.