Distressed: West Virginia must diversify its economy

West Virginians are hearing a lot of good news about an allegedly booming economy; the return of jobs — the purported “comeback” of an entire industry, in fact; millions more flowing into state coffers … We’re in the money, it seems. A significant number of those Mountain State resident are sitting on the sidelines right now wondering, “What about us?”

According to the Appalachian Regional Commission, more than 25 percent of West Virginia counties are now considered “economically distressed.” There are 15 counties — three new ones this year — the economic good times have not reached. That is 273,000 people, living in Braxton, Boone, Calhoun, Clay, Fayette, Gilmer, Lincoln, Logan, McDowell, Mingo, Roane, Summers, Webster, Wetzel and Wyoming counties. Meanwhile, five more counties were downgraded from “transitional” to “at-risk:” Lewis, Monroe, Raleigh, Randolph and Upshur.

These designations are used by the ARC to determine funding levels for projects. Distressed counties are eligible to have as much as 80 percent of project costs paid for by the commission. Increasing the number of counties with that designation costs the ARC money, so it is unlikely these changes would be made just for show.

Instead, spokeswoman Wendy Wasserman explained the changes in a way few politicians will want to hear.

“I think what’s happening is the data is catching up with the reality of the situation,” she said.

Indeed, it is another chance for policy makers, chambers of commerce, educators — all of us, really — to acknowledge the need to transition to a more diversified, more robust economy. It is time to look ahead, forget the way things have always been done, and build a Mountain State that is inviting to ALL employers, and their employees. We still operate too often in a way that closes that door. The consequences have, indeed, caught up for far too many West Virginians.