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Why West Virginians are Not Optimistic About the Economic Wins

West Virginia Development Secretary Mitch Carmichael is an unapologetic optimist. His glass is always more than half full, especially when he is talking about economic growth in the state.

Sunday, Carmichael laid out for state lawmakers during an interim committee meeting some positive economic numbers for the state, as reported by our Brad McElhinny.

“From 2017 to 2021,” Carmichael reported, “West Virginia generated $6.2 billion in private capital investment.” Then, he said, the state generated $6.2 billion in 2022 alone. “In one year, we did more than the previous years,” Carmichael said.

The growth is attributable to a rebound from the pandemic recession and a significant increase in new industries locating in the state with the help of financing from the state and the federal government.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported on the spike in green energy investments in a state that is historically dependent on coal and natural gas. One of biggest projects is Berkshire Hathaway’s planned $500 million alternative-fuel powered factory in Ravenswood to produce titanium products for the aerospace industry.

“West Virginia has in the past year approved some $400 million in funds for three renewable-energy projects, including Berkshire’s,” the Journal reported.  “Accelerating the shift are billions in federal subsidies to clean-energy entrepreneurs and manufacturers from the Biden administration’s new infrastructure and climate laws.”

The success has an enthusiastic Carmichael spiking the ball. “It’s fun to win,” Carmichael told legislators, “and we’re winning, you’re winning, the state’s winning, and we just want to continue the momentum that we’ve built. I think the future’s bright for our state.”

The litany of economic announcements over the last two years is unprecedented. I cannot recall a time over the last forty years when there was this much encouraging economic news over such a short period of time. However, not everyone in the state is sharing in that optimism.

A recent MetroNews West Virginia Poll found that nearly half (44 percent) of respondents believe the state’s economy is getting worse, while 37 percent said the state’s economy is about the same. Only 19 percent said it is getting better.

I suspect that is because much of the state will not benefit directly from the new industries. What does the Berkshire Hathaway plant in Jackson County mean for the unemployed or underemployed workers in Webster or Mingo Counties?

In addition, the long decline of the coal  industry and the dissolution of traditional manufacturing pushed tens of thousands of West Virginians out of the workforce. The state’s workforce participation rate is just 55 percent, the lowest of any state. Individuals who are not in the workforce find it hard to be optimistic about the state’s economy.

Carmichael is on the front lines of the state’s business recruitment effort, and the successes warrant his exuberance. These largely green energy projects, if they reach fruition, will be like rays of sunshine casting a promising light on communities. And there is an overall benefit to the state.

However, not all growth is distributed equally, and clouds of economic distress are still prevalent over many parts of the Mountain State.





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