At a meeting last December with my fellow Chamber executives from across the State of West Virginia, we held a session on issues and challenges that face all business communities around our fine state. Could our collective group of Chambers of Commerce find an issue and seek solutions with our legislators that would benefit our member businesses and facilitate economic development?
No. 1 Traffic
In some communities traffic is a huge issue - try going anywhere in Morgantown on the day of a home WVU football game and you know traffic! I lived in the state capital of South Carolina for three years. We had a section of highway where three interstates combined that was lovingly referred to as "Malfunction Junction." End up in the wrong lane and you got stuck heading the wrong direction for another 5 miles before you could exit and hopefully get re-oriented. But in general and with a few exceptions around our State, traffic isn't an issue that affects all of our business communities. And solutions to traffic don't necessarily require legislative remedies.
No. 2 Roads
The next issue discussed by the group was roads. Remember our session was held in December. Before 10 weeks of snow, sleet and freezing temperatures wrecked havoc on our roads. Even before this winter most everyone would agree that our State roads and bridges need more than just ongoing maintenance. Many need replaced.
Where does the money come to fund our roads? Shay Maunz wrote a great article in this month's issue of West Virginia Focus magazine that outlines the primary challenge of funding this category of infrastructure projects. Entitled "Rethinking the Gas Tax" she discusses how more fuel-efficient cars equate to less being paid in gas taxes to fund bridges and roads. The federal gas tax is 18.4 cents and isn't tied to inflation; in fact it hasn't increased since set at this amount in 1993. But the cost of asphalt, labor and other resources needed to repair and replace roads has increased. At this rate, we will never have the proper investment needed to make all the improvements in our roads without additional revenue.
Is the remedy a combination of adjusting the gas tax and tying it to inflation, along with some type of usage fee? Since our vehicles are using less gas and therefore generating less revenue from a gas tax, should we fund road projects based on usage (the miles you drive) - a those-that-use-it-most-should-pay-for-it model? Would that force people to think every time they got in the car to drive one mile down the road to pick up a loaf of bread? Would people walk or bike instead? Under that scenario, we still may not generate appropriate funding, but we might be healthier from the walk.
No. 3 Blight
Next topic for discussion - blighted properties. Sadly, every community has them. And every community has a different point of view on how to handle them. And every community has a different definition of "blighted property" overgrown weeds and growth on a vacant parcel; a dilapidated house that no one would want a relative living in but sadly is inhabited; a house with evidence of hoarding activity; a building with broken or boarded windows with no activity for years.
Many communities set a modest schedule to demolish a few properties a year, then place a lien on the property to recoup those costs. In my opinion, the municipality (and therefore the taxpayer) has just done the work for the property owner. He/she now has an empty parcel that might be easier to maintain or sell without having paid a cent. Yes, the municipality may eventually get reimbursed for the cost of demolition. Yes, it likely looks better without the dilapidated structure there but chances are the property owner still won't be enticed to make improvements. Else they would have done it prior to any intervention.
As we finished our discussion, we all agreed blight is an issue affecting all Chambers, the business community, the general public, tourists basically all audiences. We had hoped to begin discussions with our elected officials on how to tackle the issue of blighted properties at the start of the 2014 legislative session. Unfortunately the water crisis in Charleston overshadowed the session and didn't allow our collective group to start seeking solutions at the state-wide level to address blighted properties. However, it is encouraging to see local efforts and activity focused on the issue of blight. I think we can all agree blighted properties are not the impression we want to impart of Wild, Wonderful West Virginia!
Jill Parsons is the president/CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of the Mid-Ohio Valley.