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Ascend: West Virginia needs to embrace change

Change is never popular in West Virginia. That was evident earlier this year when Gov. Jim Justice proposed a plan to eliminate the state’s income tax on workers, and was met with defiance from much of the public and also the Republican-led House of Delegates.

But change must become part of our narrative unless we want to continue to see our state’s population dwindle and our best and brightest move to what they see as greener pastures.

A recent article in The Hill focused on some rather disturbing, but not surprising, news that ought to have every lawmaker in Charleston, as well as every West Virginian, concerned: Our beloved Mountain State has earned the dubious distinction of having four of the 10 fastest shrinking metropolitan statistical areas in the nation. A fifth shrinking MSA, Cumberland, Md., also includes part of West Virginia in its numbers.

At a time when much of the nation is seeing population growth, consider these figures from the U.S. Census Bureau that chart MSA population change from the 2010 Census to the 2020 Census:

* Cumberland, Md., lost 8 percent of its residents, third highest in the nation.

* Beckley lost 7.9 percent of its residents, the nation’s fourth highest.

* Charleston lost 6.9 percent, fifth highest.

* Steubenville-Weirton lost 6.1 percent, ninth highest.

* The Wheeling MSA lost 5.7 percent, 10th highest.

“Indeed, if you look at the other metropolitan areas with population losses higher than Wheeling’s, you will see a strong correlation with those areas having lost their industrial base in the past few decades as we did,” Wheeling Mayor Glenn Elliott said. “The other correlation that I would note from this published list is the prevalence of cities from West Virginia. That should not be surprising considering that ours is the only state to have any considerable population loss in the past decade.”

So what does West Virginia do — now — to turn those numbers around?

One program that is seeing success is Ascend West Virginia, founded by West Virginia native Brad Smith (the executive director of Intuit) and his wife, Alys. The Smiths financed the Ascend program to encourage people to move here and work remotely.

The first Ascend class was announced last week, with 53 people agreeing to move to Morgantown to start a new life.

“Modern technology and changing assumptions about work are finally liberating large numbers of knowledge workers from the office,” Brad Smith said. “When workers have geographic freedom, they look for a place that offers quality of life and experiences that make their lives outside of work more meaningful. In other words, they look for West Virginia! This inaugural class is a key first step in establishing West Virginia a top remote-work destination, and it positions us to attract talented, energetic new residents for years to come.”

That’s wonderful news, and a success to be built upon.

West Virginians cannot afford to simply sit and wait for the economy to improve. We must act now to build upon the Smiths’ success with Ascend. It’s truly time for West Virginia to diversify not only its economy, but also its way of thinking.

We know what will happen if we don’t act — in a decade, we’ll be having this same conversation.

Frankly, we can’t afford to allow that to happen.

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