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WVU researchers unveil action plan for Wheeling area meant to guide economic development

WHEELING, W.Va. — Following 18 months of work, officials from the Wheeling area and West Virginia University unveiled the Wheeling Area Strategic Action Plan for Spring 2021 on Thursday that focused on ways to spur economic development in eight local counties.

The Wheeling Area Chamber of Commerce engaged the West Virginia University (WVU) Bureau of Business and Economic Research (BBER) to create a strategic plan to guide development.

After the WVU BBER conducted a regional economic study, a public input survey, and finished discussions the situation with key stakeholders, leaders found four interrelated development strategies. Those action areas for long-term viability include renewed workforce training efforts, sustained redevelopment activities, continued awareness of potential clusters, and discussion of the need to formally define the Wheeling region.

Breaking down the survey results and executive summary, Michael Dougherty, an Extension Professor with WVU Extension said the largest issue seen was how to formally define the Wheeling region. He said the definition of the region will determine workforce training to meet the needs of local employers.

Michael Dougherty, WVU

For example, he said that if Wheeling is defined as a smaller region then healthcare would be more important over the oil/gas industry but vice-verse is the area is defined larger.

“Because of the way the different industries are structured and where they are located, you need to define the Wheeling region for it to be able to move forward,” Dougherty told the crowd on Zoom crowd Thursday.

In the identity portion of the plan, researchers recommended four actions including determining what is meant by “the Wheeling Region” through stakeholder discussion supported by data analysis. Researchers said leaders need to focus marketing (both to the public and to potential “investors”) on this defined region, create database information systems that identify the situation and potential for the region, and only consider (undertake) activities, investments, and endeavors that work in and for that region.

VIEW: The Wheeling Area Strategic Action Plan

The eight counties in the study included Brooke, Hancock, Marshall, Ohio, and Wetzel in West Virginia along with Belmont, Jefferson, and Monroe in Ohio.

The Greater Wheeling area map.

Dougherty said through the survey results, citizens in those counties like living in the region and want to stay, although the data showed an 11% population decline from 2000 to 2019 in the greater Wheeling area.

365 people began the survey when it was conducted in the spring of 2020 with 294 finishing it. According to Dougherty, seven out of every 10 respondents were from Ohio County and seven out of every 10 identified as a local resident. Another 15% were business leaders with 8% identifying as government officials.

“They said they like what is here, they like being here, they feel like it is a good place,” Dougherty said of the survey of the area. “But some things need to be improved. They talked about infrastructure, they talked about specifically waterfront and downtown redevelopment.”

Dougherty said that’s why redevelopment activities quickly became one of the four pillars of action. The recommendations made in that area are to concentrate development energies on the existing assets of the region and promote targeted development and redevelopment.

Eric Bowen, a Research Assistant Professor at WVU BBER focused on the economic profile, a workforce education assessment and cluster analysis of the Wheeling MSA portion of the presentation.

Eric Bowen, WVU

He said despite the area losing 11,000 jobs in the past decade, the per capita personal income has been rising and is currently above the state average. He credits the uptick in business in the oil and gas industry.

Bowen noted that recent events, such as the closing of Ohio Valley Medical Center and pipeline shutdowns have affected each industry negatively, making it difficult to recommend either as an immediate focus for development activities. The study recommended five actions to improve industrial clusters including working with key policymakers to ensure the future viability of the energy industry in the region and retaining a focus on downstream natural gas industries, such as polymers and chemicals, over the long run.

Other actions recommended were to monitor utilization of health care facilities and services to determine market demand, support medical workforce training efforts to serve existing and potential facilities, and to encourage health care providers to expand into underutilized fields within the market to offer a greater diversity of services.

VIEW: The Wheeling Area Economic Profile

Survey results indicated that there is general agreement among respondents and stakeholders that the current state of the workforce does not reflect the educational needs of current or anticipated future employers. For the workforce training pillar, officials recommended to try and determine specific worker requirements of local businesses, improve communication between firms and local education institutions, and increasing resources to transform these ideas into tangible training opportunities.

Bowen said the study also revealed there are more people coming out of the area’s colleges than the open positions available, forcing people to leave the area.

“In this case, we have a bit of imbalance in the number of people who are graduating with these degrees and the jobs who are available for them. Which may mean those people have to look elsewhere to find a job that is going to match their skills,” he said.

WVU BBER Research Associate Christiadi, Graduate Assistants and Director John Deskins, as well as, WVU Extension Service’s Family and Community Development unit faculty contributed to the strategic plan and associated reports.

The study was funded by the Wheeling Area Chamber of Commerce.

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