What’s Next West Virginia seeks public input

PARKERSBURG – Wood County commissioners learned about a new statewide initiative Monday.

What’s Next West Virginia seeks input from residents on needs, concerns and where they would like to see the state move in the future.

“This program is a statewide community initiative, nonpartisan, with no hidden agenda, which creates an environment for a broad-based conversation on the future, including economic development in the state. We want to include everyone in the discussion to talk about their concerns, learn from the past, and see where we’re going,” said Jean Ambrose, a Wood County resident who has participated in the project in other parts of the state.

Ambrose said she has attended sessions in other parts of the state.

“I wanted to bring you the information and encourage you to get involved,” Ambrose told the commissioners. “The goal is to develop strategies and action plans based on the ideas for building stronger communities/economies. It is being organized by a broad, and growing, coalition of partners from nonprofit, philanthropic, governmental, educations, and faith-based organizations.”

The West Virginia Center for Civic Life has offered workshops and materials to those who want to convene and facilitate local discussions. Ambrose said training for volunteers interested in becoming facilitators for the project is offered.

Ambrose noted how West Virginia’s economy has changed over the past 50-60 years.

“Weirton Steel used to be the state’s largest employer; today it’s Wal-Mart. We had 131,000 coal industry related jobs 50 years ago, today there are 19,000. Fifty years ago the state had a population over 2 million, for the first time in its history. Today, we are at 1.8 million. All things remaining equal, if we hadn’t seen such a large outflux of population, our numbers should now be at about 2.6 million. Health care is now one of the top ten employers in the state. Those are just some of the statistics and information that is available,” Ambrose said.

Ambrose said 50 years ago the state had two times the number of school-aged children there are now, while the population numbers of those over 65 is going up.

“Tourism is a growing industry in West Virginia providing about 44,000 jobs currently,” Ambrose said.

She said compared to a more than 30 percent diversity rate in the nation, West Virginia is at 7.3 percent. While high school graduation rates are comparable to national statistics, the number of individuals with bachelor’s degrees is much less, Ambrose said.

The West Virginia Public Broadcast network has created a video on the program which can be viewed on the website: wvpublic.org/programs/whats-next-wv.

Ambrose said the boom in the oil/gas industry can be a topic for discussion.

“As Wood County residents we are in the Marcellus Shale footprint and expecting and hoping for a Cracker Plant here. We have heard from residents in Doddridge and Wetzel counties where they have already been affected by some of the changes that brings. It’s helpful for everyone to talk about these issues,” Ambrose said. “There is no hidden agenda behind this project other than to encourage conversation.”

The PBS Internet video includes success stories of West Virginia entrepreneurs.

“When you get everyone involved in the conversation, things will happen,” she said. “We want people to consider where we want to go, set direction, and set steps to accomplish those goals.”

Ambrose said the group is not intending to duplicate any existing entity or program.

“I think Wood County needs to get involved in this initiative. We had a meeting in Buckhannon last week; we had a meeting in Wheeling, Beckley, and in Charleston. There has been broad interest shown,” she said.

Ambrose suggested the commissioners consider sponsoring a meeting and encouraging residents to be facilitators for the sessions.

“This process takes time, but I feel it’s worth the effort,” Ambrose said.

“I’m very interested in this project. I think this is the kind of dialogue that is the way to move the community forward,” commission President Wayne Dunn said.

“We need to encourage people to go to the program’s website and we could put contact information on the county’s website,” Commissioner Blair Couch said. The county website address is: www.woodcountywv.com.

“The county commission has always encouraged comments whenever we have a meeting; the citizens move the community, that’s how to get people involved and become part of the change,” Dunn said.

Ambrose said the meetings are not town hall style.

“They allow everyone to be completely equal and feel comfortable speaking; it’s more like a conversation. We could have the meetings at locations all over the county, maybe at fire departments or community centers,” Ambrose suggested. “The ultimate goal is to develop a series of action plans,” she said.

“This would be an opportunity for people to express themselves,” Couch said.