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Lewis Commission discusses plan for long-term economic development

by Darlene J. Swiger

WESTON — Tourism and a long-term plan for economic development were highlights of Monday’s Lewis County Commission meeting.

Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Chris Richards presented her quarterly and annual reports. She said a Blue Ridge Country magazine writer came to Lewis County to visit local attractions for an article.

“I attended an amazing presentation with the West Virginia CVB that covered the state of the American traveler and all the different media outlets they use to book a single trip, regardless of the length or destination,” Richards said. “Today, the average person visits 38 websites before booking a trip, and 65 percent of those folks rely on social media, word of mouth … and video to make those decisions. Travel is expected to be up across the U.S. this year.”

Richards attended her first Southeast Tourism Society Congressional Summit this year and became chair of the event for West Virginia.

“While in D.C., we spoke with all of our state’s representatives and/or their staff to discuss and educate them on the needs of West Virginia with federal agencies that support tourism and so much more in the state, which have all been listed in the president’s budget cuts,” she said. “We have worked with several groups to provide tourism information to people coming to the area for multiple events.”

The top five countries to visit according to the CVB website are the United States, Great Britain, the Russian Federation, the Netherlands and Romania. The top 10 states/districts in the U.S. to visit were West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, Texas, New York, Washington, D.C., Florida, North Carolina and California.

The checkbook balance as of June 30 was $23,670.74, with no dollars in open contracts from fiscal year 2017 and $19,517 in open contracts for 2018. The Golden Investment Account balance is $32.41.

Lewis County citizen Tom Berlin of Valley Chapel asked the commission about economic development and the future of Lewis County.

He discussed the county being on the verge of more economic activity due to the large interstate natural gas pipelines’ construction.

“I think we all know that this upcoming economic surge is likely to be a temporary boon for the county. However, there will certainly be somewhat of a financial windfall for the Lewis County Commission as collections of various fees and taxes increase. I want to ask how you intend to leverage this upcoming windfall to help to build a sustainable future for Lewis County,” Berlin said.

Commission President Pat Boyle said for the past two to three years, it has been hard to have grandiose ideas.

“Our main objective is to stabilize the county tax base and be fiscally responsible. We are working on grants to take care of county buildings/assets,” Boyle said. “I don’t spend money we don’t have. In my nine years, our hands have been tied by state government.”

He also discussed the daily work behind the scenes to bring companies to the county.

“It is disheartening to get responses from companies saying we do not have enough ‘housetops.’ There is $2.5 billion coming for road projects. I hope some of those are here. Infrastructure and housing are big concerns.”

Commissioner Rod Wyman added they have been diligently working to bring in businesses and build manufacturing.

County Administrator Cindy Whetsell said the Planning Commission is working on a comprehensive plan for the future, and the commission will integrate all parts of that plan to diversify the economy.

In other business, the commission:

— Approved a Regional Jail and Correctional Facility invoice of $76,814 for July.

— Received approval from the state auditor for a $568,632 budget revision.

— Approved the resignation of Board of Health member Linda Fox and appointment of Britainey Cooper.

— Signed a proclamation honoring the late Richard Bonnett for his years as a county commissioner and membership on countless boards.

Staff writer Darlene J. Swiger can be reached at (304) 626-1403 or dswiger@theet.com


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Marshall University looks to rev up its region

By in News

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Marshall University wants to be a machine for economic development in southern West Virginia.

The university is pursuing at least three approaches:

  • locally, by developing a hub for entrepreneurs in cooperation with city leaders.
  • regionally, by cooperating with other higher education institutions in southern West Virginia to encourage economic growth.
  • statewide, by partnering with West Virginia University on a study of how the state’s potential may be met.

“We want to show people that we can do more than just educate young people and prepare them for a career, but we can create opportunities to leverage our universities to help attract businesses, to interface with businesses to help them, to be part of economic development and be part of job creation,” Marshall University President Jerome Gilbert said during a recent, hour-long interview in his office.

“I think that’s something that, in the future, institutions will be smart to be more and more involved to create an economic climate in their region that will be conducive to higher standards of living and creating new jobs and attracting new industries to the state and the region.”

Marshall’s evolving perspective comes both as southern West Virginia crawls out of an economic depression and as West Virginia’s colleges have been recipients of fewer state government dollars.

Gilbert says he sees a growing need to evolve, branch out and help.

“We have committed at Marshall to being more actively involved in economic development,” he said.


Marshall will ramp up outreach through its Lewis College of Business and with leadership from new dean Avinandan “Avi” Mukherjee, Gilbert said.

Groups of ambassadors from Marshall and Huntington, including Gilbert, Mukherjee, Senator Bob Plymale and others have taken recent visits to the Innovation Depot in Birmingham, Ala.

The incubator, which is run in partnership with the University of Alabama at Birmingham, is a possible model for what could take shape in the Huntington area.

Gilbert draws inspiration from Malcolm Portera, former chancellor of the University of Alabama System — particularly admiring his role in economic development.

“I invited him up to Marshall to talk about some of the successes he’s had to show how important it can be and how significant it can be if you leverage higher education with big businesses that need some assistance,” Gilbert said.

“He also mentioned that while he was the chancellor they had started a business hub, which is an innovation depot in Birmingham. It is amazing.”

Gilbert and the others from Huntington saw first-hand on their visit to Birmingham.

“They took two incubators — a university incubator and the city had an incubator also —  and they bought an old Sears and Roebuck store that was on the market pretty cheap, and they converted it into a huge incubator for businesses. They have about a hundred businesses. They have a restaurant in there or a food service. Lots of companies, a lot of them are medically related,” Gilbert said.

“We talked to some of the businesses there and got a sense of how important something like that could be for a community.”

Huntington could mirror that success, although likely on a smaller scale. The key is to be sure the local government and the university are in cooperation, Gilbert said.

“So we think we want to create an incubator in Huntington to give us a place where not only the community entrepreneurs would have a place to start out with some assistance, but also our students and our faculty so we would create an environment where community entrepreneurs, faculty with ideas and students with ideas would have a place to get started in an incubator,” he said.

Gilbert has met at least one student — although he suspects there are more — who might have benefited from an incubator. This student, a freshman, wanted to start a computer repair business but ran up against rules that wouldn’t allow him to do so in his residence hall.

“So our thought is we probably have a lot of students with ideas to get started in an incubator that would be great in terms of giving them that boost. We know there are people in the community that would want that possibility to start out in the incubator,” he said.

“We also know that having a place where our college of business faculty and students could interface with entrepreneur business owners would be a great venue to really have some synergy.


Gilbert is pursuing partnership with other universities, colleges and community colleges in southern West Virginia to present a united front for economic development.

“We’re also looking at a bigger opportunity for the whole region,” Gilbert said. “We’ve been talking with all of the institutions in the southern part of the state. We’ve gone and visited with all of them to form an alliance of sorts for economic development.”

The goal would be to promote an economic upturn in southern West Virginia, which has been challenged by a soft coal market for the past several years. Gilbert says the region badly needs economic diversification.

“So our idea is if we can show a prospective business that we have 10 institutions, a combination of community and technical colleges and 4-year universities that are willing to interface with these businesses,” he said, “that that will be a very powerful portfolio to present to a prospective business, saying ‘You come down to the region of southern West Virginia and we’ll make available all the resources of these 10 institutions to help you start your business.’”

The first step has been to see if the other institutions are on board. So far, so good.

“We visited with all of these individuals face to face and said will you be a part of this alliance? And we’ve had very positive responses,” Gilbert said.

“We’ve, in the past, concentrated so much on being competitors and not so much collaborators. And I think it’s a new idea, and I thought let’s pitch this and see if people will buy into it because we have very little to lose and a lot to gain potentially.”

The partnership would also extend to the state Department of Commerce to help show off property ripe for development in the region.

One site that sprung to mind for Gilbert was the former Hobet mine site the former Tomblin administration spoke excitedly about. The site, now renamed Rock Creek Development Park, includes more than 12,000 acres of flat land — a resource that state development officials say is a rarity in southern West Virginia.

“We think any site 5 to 10 acres would be a potential site for a small manufacturing or business facility, but certainly the Rock Creek site is huge,” Gilbert said. “You could put a car assembly plant up there. You could put an airport up there.”

A rising economic tide in southern West Virginia could lift all boats, he said.

“I think there’s a lot of potential in southern West Virginia, but we’ve got to market it. We’ve been complacent only because we haven’t had to market southern West Virginia,” Gilbert said. “Now that we’re faced with an economic challenge, now is the time to step up, so that’s what Marshall is interested in doing is stepping up along with the other institutions and say let us help you attract businesses, manufacturers to southern west Virginia.

“Let’s stimulate this economy, let’s turn it around. We know there is tremendous potential, but right now there’s a malaise in southern west Virginia and we want to help break out of that.”


Gilbert is excited about partnering with West Virginia University and his counterpart, President Gordon Gee, on a broad effort to improve the economic climate in West Virginia.

The project, spearheaded by WVU, incorporates work by McKinsey Global Institute, which is researching what’s setting West Virginia back and what could move the state forward.

The project is known as Forward West Virginia.

“We are looking at the institutions – West Virginia University and Marshall — doing a statewide rollout of different sectors that we can expand into in West Virginia, a little more focused on the idea that there are industries in existence that can be expanded and there are industries that can be attracted in terms of building on the strengths of the state,” Gilbert said.

“It’s a bit more focused on the future and bringing in new industries as opposed to marketing the sites.”

Gilbert welcomes such cooperation between the state’s two biggest universities, which are often viewed as being in competition. He said he gets along quite well with Gee.

“I think he and I have a very cordial and warm relationship. We’ve told each other we’re going to try to work together when we can and try to minimize the competition so that when it make sense for us to join together to do things we’re going to do that,” Gilbert said.

“There’s always a natural level of competition between universities because that’s the way it is. I think it’s more of an attitude that you can either highlight that and exacerbate that competitive nature or you can minimize that and focus more on the collaboration.”


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Becky Ceperley: Communities feel impact of independent colleges (Gazette)

The role that independent colleges and universities play in educating their students is well known. What is less known is the role they play in the economies of the communities in which they are located.

According to The Atlantic magazine, “Pick out any rural college town and it’s likely doing better economically than other nearby rural areas.” The majority of the independent colleges and universities in West Virginia are located in rural communities.

Colleges and universities, particularly those located in rural areas, have a major impact on knowledge creation, research and development, direct and indirect expenditures flowing into the surrounding areas, and the potential workforce.

West Virginia’s independent colleges and universities are investing in their communities. They renovate buildings, work to bridge the physical gap between campuses and downtowns, and they get involved in initiatives ranging from economic development to educating local residents.

These educational institutions produce research and technology that can be parlayed into new businesses, creating jobs nearby. Local businesses are often created to serve the needs of the colleges and universities and their students.

The schools bring to the area students, who spend money on restaurants and services, and attract professors and administrators, who do the same and also buy houses and cars.

West Virginia’s independent colleges and universities enroll more than 8,850 students annually. They employ more than 1,500 full-time employees.

Globalization, economic change and technology demand some post-secondary education, to compete in the workforce of the future.

Colleges and universities located in rural communities expose students and adults to the college experience that they may not typically have experienced.

To many youth, attending college is not an option, for numerous reasons, including, distance to attend school and unfamiliarity with higher education. Having an institution located close by and knowing someone who has attended or is attending that college or university may create an interest in considering higher education.

Students raised in an environment where they have been exposed to college are more likely to go to college. West Virginia’s independent colleges and universities offer their communities that exposure.

Over half of the students attending West Virginia’s independent colleges and universities are West Virginians.

West Virginia’s independent liberal arts colleges and universities play an important role in educating students and stimulating the economy of the communities where they are located. They are an active and essential component of our state’s educational, economic, and cultural life.

Becky Ceperley is executive director of West Virginia Independent Colleges and Universities.


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Seeing Hope for Flagging Economy, West Virginia Revamps Vocational Track


HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — In a sleek laboratory at Marshall University last month, four high school teachers hunched over a miniature steam-electric boiler, a tabletop replica of the gigantic machinery found in power plants.

They hooked the boiler to a small, whirring generator and tinkered with valves and knobs, looking for the most efficient way to turn coal, natural gas, nuclear or solar energy into electricity.

The teachers, who were attending a summer training program, are helping West Virginia in another kind of transformation. Long one of the poorest states, it is now leading the way in turning vocational education from a Plan B for underachieving students into what policy makers hope will be a fuel source for the state’s economic revival.

Simulated workplaces, overseen by teachers newly trained in important state industries like health, coal and even fracking, are now operating in schools across the state. Students punch a time clock, are assigned professional roles like foreman or safety supervisor, and are even offered several vacation days of their choice in addition to regular school breaks. (Many take time off during deer hunting season.)

Traditional math and English teachers have been reassigned to technical high schools, to make sure students on the vocational track still gain reading, writing and math skills.
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And this fall, students enrolled in simulated workplaces will need to participate in one of the program’s boldest elements: random drug testing.

Given the extent of the state’s opioid crisis, employers “wouldn’t take anything we were doing seriously until we passed that hurdle,” said Barry Crist, principal of the Fayette Institute of Technology in Oak Hill.

West Virginia’s heavy push on vocational education comes as leaders of both parties have talked about making it a priority, a shift from the No Child Left Behind era of education reform, in which college for everyone was often the goal. In 2015, fewer than half of 25- to 34-year-olds nationwide had earned an associate or bachelor’s degree, according to census figures.

“Vocational training is a great thing,” President Trump said a week before Election Day. “We’re going to start it up big league.” In June, he signed an executive order that redirected federal job training funds toward apprenticeships, in which students learn skills at actual work sites.

Democrats, too, are talking about vocational training. The agenda they introduced in July, “A Better Deal,” speaks of increasing support for “technical education that leads to a good job.”

But Mr. Trump’s budget calls for $166 million in cuts, a 15 percent reduction, in Perkins Act grants to the states, the government’s main funding stream for technical education in high school and college. The House passed a bipartisan reauthorization of the Perkins program in June, but the bill has not moved forward in the Senate. Even if it passes, the legislation will represent a tweak to the program, not a substantial new commitment of the type Mr. Trump and Democrats have touted.

When it comes to technical education, the United States is an outlier compared with other developed nations. Only 6 percent of American high school students were enrolled in a vocational course of study, according to a 2013 Department of Education report. In the United Kingdom, 42 percent were on the vocational track; in Germany, it was 59 percent; in the Netherlands, 67 percent; and in Japan, 25 percent.

“We are so focused on academic routes as opposed to other routes that can be high quality,” said Mary Alice McCarthy, director of the Center on Education and Skills at New America and a former official at the Education and Labor Departments. “There’s a desperate need.”

West Virginia has especially big challenges transitioning students to life after high school. According to the Social Science Research Council, 17 percent of the state’s young adults are “disconnected,” neither working nor in school, the second-highest rate among states, behind only New Mexico.

But in few other states have the changes in vocational education — now rebranded as “career and technical education” — been as dramatic. Thirty-seven percent of West Virginia high school seniors completed a technical course of study in 2016, up from 18 percent in 2010.

Many are now in simulated workplaces where they learn to work with stethoscopes, welding torches and drafting tables as well as more sophisticated technology.

As an eighth grader, Dillon Brasse, who will be a senior this fall, planned to enter the vocational track to learn masonry. But on a tour of the Fayette Institute, he was fascinated by the computer-assisted drafting classroom, where students work with a 3-D printer, a laser engraver, a vinyl cutter and professional computer software like AutoDesk’s Inventor, which is used in product development.

In his classroom, Dillon said, music plays and students are permitted breaks throughout the day, like employees at a real work site. He and his classmates have designed and produced objects like saltshakers and fidget spinners, the faddish hand-held toys.

“It’s a great experience,” Dillon said, because “you’re treated like an adult.”

That treatment now includes drug testing. West Virginia policy makers say such testing prepares students for the work force, where employers are increasingly checking for drug use, though the American Academy of Pediatrics opposes mandatory testing, citing a “lack of solid evidence” for its effectiveness in helping teenagers avoid substances.

Rachel Peal, who graduated this spring from the pre-engineering simulated workplace program at the Fayette Institute, said the protocol kicked up little protest among her peers. They are well aware that opioid users can’t get or hold down jobs, she said.

“A lot of kids and their families saw the struggle,” she said. “It’s an epidemic here.”

Ron Foster, president of Foster Supply Inc., an 80-employee construction and fabrication firm, has hired eight graduates of the state’s high school simulated workplace program over the past two years. They can earn as much as $15 per hour doing jobs such as welding and machinery repair.

Compared with previous hires, this group is more punctual and focused on building a career, Mr. Foster said. “If you’re dedicated enough to go through that program, you’re more apt to do a good, quality job,” he said.

But far from being strictly a job training program for teenagers, classes like Advanced Career Energy and Power, the four-course sequence for which teachers were training at Marshall University, require math and physics instruction as rigorous as in the College Board’s Advanced Placement track. Of the four teachers tinkering with the miniature boiler, three came from traditional math and science departments.

The hope is to prepare students for higher-skilled work. In the fracking industry, for example, they might qualify for jobs in equipment maintenance or environmental compliance instead of laying pipeline, an entry-level and sometimes dangerous job.

About half of the state’s technical-track graduates go on to two- or four-year colleges. Dillon Brasse, for example, is now planning to pursue a bachelor’s degree in engineering or architecture.

“There’s so much technical information that’s needed today,” said Jeri Matheney, communications director for Appalachian Power, which runs coal, natural gas and hydropower plants in West Virginia. “Where we counted on just on-the-job training 50 years ago, that has changed.”

The classes mimic the workplace in another way, one perhaps not intended. According to federal data from the 2015-16 school year, 90 percent of West Virginia high school technical students concentrating in science fields were male, while 89 percent of those concentrating in health fields were female.

And economists debate whether better vocational education, at either the high school or college level, can be a large-scale fix for underemployment. After all, if firms aren’t hiring, even a highly skilled worker will struggle to land a job.

The energy sector is especially cyclical, a challenge for the Appalachian region. Nationwide, the number of jobs in coal and gas fell by more than a quarter between 2014 and 2016, and hiring is only now beginning to creep back up.

Still, West Virginia educators and policy makers are believers in the “skills gap” hypothesis.

Kathy D’Antoni, the state director for career and technical education since 2010, said a better-educated work force would attract new types of jobs to the state. And she would like to see more support from Washington targeted toward struggling rural states. West Virginia delivered the largest pro-Trump majority in the November election, a margin of 42 percentage points.

Adjusted for inflation, West Virginia’s funding through the Perkins Act has been flat since the program’s inception in 1984, according to the state. Asked about the president’s proposed cuts to Perkins, Liz Hill, a spokeswoman for the federal Department of Education, said innovation in career and technical education would continue locally through “public-private partnerships” between schools and industry.

Ms. D’Antoni said she appreciated the attention Mr. Trump had given to vocational education. But, she said, “I want to see the action.”


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Though filmed in Welch, town had to scramble to screen ‘Glass Castle’

By Jennifer Gardner, Staff Writer

Getting the movie based on Jeanette Walls’ memoir “The Glass Castle” to show in McDowell County — where the author spent her school-age years — didn’t require an act of Congress.

But it almost did.

The McDowell 3 Marquee Cinemas in Welch wasn’t originally scheduled to show the film when it was released nationwide on Friday. The closest showing was in Beckley, over an hour away.

By mid-week, the theater, the Marquee Cinema corporate office and Lionsgate Films production and distribution studio began fielding phone calls of complaint, including several from Delegate Ed Evans of Welch, who also asked U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin to step in.

Manchin’s office confirmed he, too, had been making calls on behalf of moviegoers in Welch and surrounding areas.

“I talked to everybody I could talk to, and I just wasn’t going to take no for an answer,” Evans said.

Late Wednesday, the movie theater confirmed it will be able to show the movie beginning with Friday showings at 3:40, 6:40 and 9:45 p.m.

In her critically acclaimed memoir, Walls shares her story of coming of age in a nonconformist, dysfunctional family.

She describes spending her school-age years in rural West Virginia, where she found her passion for journalism at Welch High School and developed her dreams of moving to New York City.

Walls, played by Academy Award-winning actress Brie Larson in the film, described her fear of sharing her story in an article published by the Los Angeles Times.

“It was, I had thought, a shameful story, one I’d hidden for years, a childhood filled with poverty, alcoholism and homelessness,” Walls said. “But it was also one filled with joy, pride and deep love. One day, challenged by my mother to ‘just tell the truth,’ I wrote the story.”

The book spent 261 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list and sold more than 2.7 million copies. The movie also stars Woody Harrelson and Naomi Watts.

Pre-production for the film began in May 2016 in Welch, where locals posed as extras at Vic Nystrom Stadium, decked in maroon and white — just as it would have looked at a Welch High School football game.

Those who attended Welch High during that era, circa 1977, wore their letterman jackets and T-shirts in the spirit of the occasion.

In the scene, Larson strolled across the field taking pictures of the football game and interviewed a football player for a school newspaper story.

“When Jeannette started writing the book, she called me,” said Mount View cheerleading coach Cathy Jack when the film crew was in Welch. “She said she didn’t have any pictures of herself, so she wanted to borrow my yearbook.”

Jack still has a picture of the two in Little League cheerleading outfits.

“Jeannette was real friendly and smiled a lot. She kept a lot hidden, evidently, about what was going on in her life,” Jack said.

Many of the town’s residents were thrilled about the production crew filming in Welch.

Several scenes, including the football game and a scene at the local newspaper, were filmed there, though it isn’t clear which — if any — made the film’s final cut.

“People around here are getting anxious to see it, but I don’t really think there are any special events planned,” Jack said. “I just hope they didn’t delete the scenes with our kids in them.”

No opening night events in McDowell County had been announced as of press time. But it was important to screen the movie in McDowell County, said Evans, in part because of the potential for economic impact to the region.

“This can lead to economic development for McDowell County, because when the ‘Rocket Boys’ movie [‘October Sky’] came out, it brought people from all over the U.S. to McDowell County. So who knows what kind of economic development this could mean to West Virginia?” he said.

In Charleston, the Marquee Cinemas in Southridge will be screening the film at 12:40, 3:40, 6:40, and 9:35 p.m. on Friday.

Reach Jennifer Gardner at

jennifer.gardner@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5102 or follow

@jenncgardner on Twitter.