West Virginia’s challenge

I have this growing feeling that West Virginia is approaching a turning point, or even a seminal moment where the arc of our state will be determined for years to come.

Certainly the epic challenges facing the coal industry are part of the reason, but there’s more… much more. There is an aggregate effect of it all; the economy, the crumbling infrastructure, public education failures, spreading drug abuse, poor health, the state’s negative image.

Some of the problems are tangible and fixable—dedicate more money to fixing the roads.  Others are rooted more deeply in our psyche—a sense of resignation that this is how it is in West Virginia and it will never be better.

But daily I talk with people, intelligent and successful people, who love this state and believe with all their hearts that, more than anything, we can do better.

Last Sunday, West Virginia native Dan McGinn, a nationally-recognized communications specialist in Washington, D.C., wrote a powerful piece in the Sunday Gazette-Mail where he expressed just such a sentiment where he imagined a new future for the Mountain State.

I don’t agree completely with his assessment, particularly as it pertains to the coal industry, but he got me thinking; rather than rehashing that argument or emphasizing the differences, I’ll settle on the common ground of working toward a better future, starting with how we, and the rest of the country, see our state.

“We need to show that West Virginia is a place of extraordinary beauty where values matter, hard work is the norm, creativity exists in abundance and surprising opportunities abound,” wrote McGinn.

Recently, Metronews formed a partnership with Rex Repass and Repass Research and Strategy to continue the West Virginia Poll.  Like, McGinn, Repass is based out of state (Cincinnati), but he cares deeply about the place where he grew up.

“West Virginia is at a crossroads. While we’ve heard this before, the challenge today is for the state’s leaders – in business, academia, and government – to act boldly,” Repass told me.  “The state needs to be a disrupter and very aggressively compete for 21st century jobs and reward risk-takers and entrepreneurs. West Virginians can compete at the highest level – I know that from my experience in business – when the opportunities are there.”

Earlier this month I met Brad Smith, President and CEO of Intuit, the small business and personal finance software company.   He’s another West Virginia native who is now based out of state (San Francisco), but has never lost his connections here.  Smith told me it’s no longer a question of if he returns to West Virginia, but rather when.

Earlier this year, Dr. Clay Marsh returned to his home state to become vice president and executive dean for WVU Health Sciences.  Marsh immediately announced his intentions to use the University’s resources to improve the health of our state’s citizens.

These are just a few examples of bright people with deep West Virginia roots who have come home, want to come home or are committed to improving the state.  How many others are there like them?  Hundreds? Thousands?  How many people who live here now love this state and would put their shoulder to the stone if they only knew how to begin?

We cannot expect government to be the sole proprietor of change; the job is too big and too diverse.  Yet the state is small enough that the cumulative efforts of smart, hardworking individuals dedicated to the common theme of making West Virginia a better place can make a difference.

I know we already have a lot of folks doing that now, often quietly in their own communities, but we need more buy-in from more West Virginians. It’s a huge challenge, but if we are as tough and proud as we think we are, then it’s also an opportunity.


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