What West Virginia needs

This summer, I have found myself dwelling in downtown Parkersburg more than I have in years. As I drive down Market Street, I continually feel discouraged by what I see — unharnessed potential. Parkersburg was once a city that pulsed with life: our downtown area was full of businesses, Grand Central Mall was almost always buzzing, and many young individuals would return home to start their own lives after graduating from college due to the sheer family friendliness the area had to offer. Fast forward to the present, and I see a downtown area that is full of vacant storefronts, a mall that rarely sees large crowds and an area that is largely stricken by drug addiction and poverty. More often than not, I hear folks reminiscing about the way things used to be. What about the way things need to be? Our population is aging rapidly and we are losing the younger generation to the attractive nature of larger areas and cities. This attractive nature is not merely due to nightlife and other social experiences — it is also largely due to employment opportunities.

We have organizations, such as Downtown PKB, that are doing a great job at planning events and uplifting the positive notes of our area and I applaud them for their efforts — however, in my opinion, it isn’t enough. The failure to keep the younger generation in our state is not just a local issue, and it is one that requires more direct legislative and social intervention.

As a young individual, I am faced with both observations and facts that cannot be ignored:

As of March 2019, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that our unemployment rate was 5.1percent — this is 1.5 percentage points above the national average and this has remained fairly steady within the past few years. Although correlation does not imply causation, it cannot be denied that there is a strong connection between our suffering economy and our troubling opioid statistics: According to the National Institute of Health in March 2019, West Virginia has the highest age-adjusted rate of drug overdose deaths involving opioids. 2010 Census Data further indicated that our state is 93.5 percent Caucasian. I believe that the best ideas and environments are birthed from the celebration of and efforts to nurture diversity, but we simply do not see that here. Diversity is also more than just race and ethnicity — diversity creates a beautiful fabric of beliefs and backgrounds that ushers in understanding and empathy.

Consequently, many individuals who choose to leave the state may experience a culture shock — but they soon also discover that the world is much larger and full of different positives that they cannot experience here. If we combine the lack of an evolving job market with drugs, crime and minimal activities for young adults, we create a recipe for disaster.

I know, I know. You’re sick of hearing about all these negatives, right? Me too. But we need to have these conversations.

I also have been able to have a glimpse into some of the workings of our local governments. The younger generation doesn’t have as much of a voice here because our committees and councils are largely, if not fully, filled with older folks. This is largely synonymous with the state of our current national government too. And don’t get me wrong — the older generations have accomplished wonderful things and they love their communities. It is easy to want to gravitate toward making certain choices that have always been made — after all, everybody likes a safe bet when money and resources are involved. But I also think that there is power in new choices and power in the occasional risk — ones that will potentially alter my generation’s choice to stay or go. Choices that will make us feel heard and give us the desire to try and save the collapsing nature of the Wild and Wonderful. We need to encourage younger generations to get involved in the community more fully and give them the opportunity to do so — and yes, this includes the government — we need to alter the composition of that too. Young people show minimal interest in involvement with government structures that make them feel unheard. They don’t desire to become involved in an area where they feel their interests are being put on the backburner. “You are young and don’t have life experience” is a poor excuse to give to an individual who is scrappy and passionate about bettering their circumstances. Instead of demeaning their effort, why not take them under your wing?

We need to consider various funding allocations and brainstorm innovative approaches to attracting diverse individuals and businesses to the area. We need to find ways to bring youth and young adults back to the Mountain State. Efforts to make many of these changes require strong cooperation and assistance from these local legislative entities. It is time we take this seriously.

West Virginia has been trying. We can see efforts through the Promise Scholarship for promoting higher education in the state and the efforts of organizations like Downtown PKB. These efforts don’t go unnoticed. But we can also see that these efforts are only slightly slowing the demise — and the factors surrounding the demise seem to be much more powerful. Many young Promise Scholarship recipients will still choose to leave post-graduation. After all, we incentivized them to stay for their college years, but we don’t have that much to offer post-graduation. We see this demise in every corner of our life: from the struggle for certain businesses to stay afloat to the consolidation of local schools due to a pretty drastic population decline of youth in our area. We need to be serious about seeking solutions with more longevity and we need to be willing to make structural changes. “The way things have always been” is no longer a sufficient cop-out. Sometimes, evolution is necessary. The Wild and Wonderful depends on it.

I want better for the beautiful state that I come from; I want to see the change and I want the platform necessary to help be the change. Do I know any perfect solution? Maybe not. But I know we need to change our mindset and our approach.