Search for new Commerce secretary is harder than expected, governor says

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — If anyone knows a charismatic, knowledgeable leader for West Virginia’s economic growth efforts, drop Gov. Jim Justice a line.

“We’re probably not near as close as I’d like to be,” Justice said today on MetroNews’ “Talkline.”

“To tell you the truth, if you’d be interested, I’d surely love to sit down and talk with you about it. But if you’re not, if you could send me a couple of names of people that are out there in your listening audience today, I’m looking for a really good person.”

But, he acknowledged, “We’re struggling finding that person.”

Woody Thrasher

West Virginia has been without a secretary for the Department of Commerce since the forced resignation of Woody Thrasher on June 14.

The agency also has been without the other top lieutenants 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.

The interim secretary for Commerce is Clayton Burch, whose background is in the Department of Education. Ogden newspapers ran a story last weekend, asking about Burch’s role. “No sir, the truth is I haven’t met him,” Senator Ed Gaunch, R-Kanawha, said of Burch.

Governor Justice agreed that the agency needs a long-term leader. He spoke about the search in response to questions at a Tuesday afternoon news conference about improving state revenue figures.

“We need a great leader in Commerce,” he said. “We’re still holding it together and keeping it moving in the right direction. It’s moving. It’s moving.

“And we’re making every show, whether it’s meeting with Hino Motors or the people from Wales or the Chinese. We’ve met with them and everything, and all promising and the Qatar people. We’re making every show, but it’s hard. We need a great Commerce leader that’s for sure.”

Justice had described a “realignment” of the Commerce department earlier this summer. At the time — and in the months since — there’s been little discussion of what that means.

“We had three top officials that we feel like we can fill with two spots instead of the three,” he said Tuesday.

Justice was speaking at a press conference focused on improving revenue numbers. State officials attributed the current revenue growth to severance tax, consumer sales tax and personal income tax.

The governor was accompanied by Senate President Mitch Carmichael and House Speaker Roger Hanshaw.

They addressed the issue of diversifying West Virginia’s economy.

“We are a natural resource state,” Justice said. “We abound in coal, gas, oil, water, timber. We are blessed beyond belief. And we don’t want to just throw that away, but we need to be diversified.

“We need to have massive tourism here. We need to have manufacturing. We need to have all kinds of different things. We need high tech, higher ed, so many different things that we’re right on the cusp of taking advantage of where we’re positioned in this country, geographically.”

Roger Hanshaw

Hanshaw described economic diversification as one of his favorite topics to discuss.

“I’m here to speak for the House but I may be here also to speak for my generation and maybe yours,” said Hanshaw, who is 38.

“The U.S. Department of Labor says 60 percent of Americans in the next 30 years will work in jobs that don’t even yet exist.”

He emphasized the need to continue efforts such as broadband internet expansion. He said such efforts would help residents work remotely, start businesses and participate in e-commerce.

Hanshaw said many of West Virginia’s economic efforts, such as in tourism and technology, could be intertwined.

“Taking steps to empower outdoor recreation businesses in West Virginia is a step toward a tech economy,” Hanshaw said. “Those two things aren’t joined together nearly often enough in our conversation. We don’t talk about what our outdoor recreation economy means to other sectors of our economy.

“When we marry things like growth in outdoor industry, we’re not only spurring that economy but things that go along with it.”

Hanshaw said that in addition to taking practical steps toward economic diversification, West Virginia leaders also need to serve as cheerleaders in support of economic growth.

“If you think about where we are as a state, a lot of the perceived stagnation that we have is as much mental as it is a reality. People want to be associated with growth. They want to be associated with excitement, they want to be associated with things that are growing and doing well,” Hanshaw said.

“So part of our responsibility as leaders is being cheerleaders for ourselves, being cheerleaders for our own state. We all live here by choice. Everyone in this room lives in West Virginia because we choose to live here.”

So he described stagnation as “as much a mental roadblock as it is a reality, so we have to become our own cheerleaders here because people aren’t looking to West Virginia on their own. We have to make it hospitable for them. We have to make it attractive to them.”

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