Appalachian Regional Commission leader: diversification essential for growth in southern W.Va.

BECKLEY, W.Va. — During his appearance at the annual Regional Job and Resource Fair in Beckley last week, the co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission urged state and local officials in the most rural areas of southern West Virginia to continue efforts to expand tourism, improve broadband access and pursue high-tech industries.

ARC Federal Co-Chair Tim Thomas acknowledged there are geographical realities putting the region at an industrial disadvantage, but predicted a bright future for Raleigh, Fayette, Mercer and other nearby counties, contingent upon a long-term strategy emphasizing economic diversification, whenever and wherever possible.

Tim Thomas

“Industry that requires a broad footprint is probably going to be hard-pressed to locate in some place that doesn’t have a lot of flat space,” he told MetroNews. “High-tech industry industries don’t necessarily need a wide footprint to operate. What they do need is broadband access, and that’s an area where we’re trying to help West Virginia grow and do better. A lot of things that we want to do in the future, and aspire to, really depends on the availability of broadband service.”

Thomas commended the ongoing efforts of West Virginia’s congressional delegation to bring about the advent of broadband service throughout the state comparable to that of most other states in the eastern U.S.

“They work in a team fashion, and that’s what it’s going to take because (implementing a federally-backed initiative) requires a lot of investment, a lot of careful planning. So, we’re going to get there but it’s hard work,” he said.

Since 2015, West Virginia has received approximately $83 million in annual funding from the ARC, which awards discretionary POWER (Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization) Grants for improvement of broadband and other critical infrastructure, entrepreneurial support, and training of displaced workers.

Thomas generally agreed with the findings of West Virginia University economist John Deskins, whose most recent assessment and forecast for the southern region of the state emphasized the continued expansion of outdoors-related tourism as essential for the area’s economic health and future stability.

“We’ve rarely seen investment in tourism turn out bad, and that is an area that does have a future, a strong future, in West Virginia,” said Thomas. “That’s certainly not the only thing but adventure tourism, ecotourism, those have been investments we’ve seen turn out well in West Virginia.”

Thomas said events such as Friday’s job fair in Beckley are useful barometers for discerning regional trends among employers and the types of skill-sets most likely to be in demand during a period of sustained national economic growth.

Thomas was joined at the event by U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who has described the Appalachian Regional Commission as one of West Virginia’s most essential economic development partners.

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