Economist: New River Region Has Challenges But One Of The Biggest Advantages
A new report called West Virginia’s Economic Outlook report from West Virginia University looked at the advantages and challenges facing the state over the next four years.
West Virginia University economist John Deskins, who authored the report, says remote work could be a way to improve the state’s economic realities.
“As far as COVID goes,” Deskins said, “Never have we seen job loss happen that rapidly. But on the positive side, the recovery has been stronger than I expected.”
According to the report, West Virginia lost 94,000 jobs during the pandemic. About 70,000 of those jobs are back.
Deskins predicts the remaining jobs will be back in about 10 months. But, he noted that West Virginia’s economy was struggling even before the pandemic.
“One of the biggest challenges that we face is low labor force participation,” Deskins pointed out.
West Virginia has the lowest work participation rate in the country. In October of this year it stood at 55 percent.
“Some of the big reasons behind this labor force participation deficit are poor education and training outcomes, poor health outcomes, drug abuse problems,” Deskins said. “Those issues related to human capital are keeping people out of the workforce. We have to work on fixing those issues to get people in the workforce again, and therefore make West Virginia more attractive to potential businesses.”
There has been some economic progress with tourism. Deskins suggests remote workers could also play a key role in West Virginia’s economic future.
“I think we have a lot that we can sell, at least for some of our communities, the ones that have good internet,” Deskins said. “And I think it's an opportunity to help build momentum.”
Deskins points out that economies can vary county by county.
“It is important to recognize that West Virginia is very, very different from region to region,” Deskins said. “We shouldn't just pursue a one-size fits-all economic development strategy. We have to tailor economic development strategies to each region and each region's strengths and weaknesses.”
One area Deskins discussed was the New River Gorge area. It is made up of four counties including Raleigh, Nicholas, Fayette and Summers.
“The New River Gorge is an interesting region because we have an urban core in Beckley, which is important for economic development,” Deskins said. “The region has good connectivity as far as highway access goes (with) two interstates going through the region.”
The New River Gorge was recently designated a National Park and Preserve, making it the 63rd national park in the country and 20th preserve. Deskins says it’s a leg up for the area.
“I think the one part that I would say that sets this region apart is the fact that it has the probably the strongest tourism opportunities to bring people in for whitewater rafting and camping and hiking and those things,” Deskins said. “You know, those opportunities don't exist in every single county, but they're very strong here.”
That’s not all that sets the region apart from the rest of the state and even the country. The region has challenges, too.
“The demographic situation is a little bit worse down here,” Deskins said. “The labor force participation in the New River Gorge region is lower than it is in the state. The region is kind of older than the state overall, all the issues that are stated around a dwindling population around poor education, training outcomes, poor health outcomes, poor drug abuse outcomes, all those issues are at least as relevant here as they are in the (rest of the) state. And in many cases, they're even more relevant here in the New River Gorge.”
Though the state continues to deal with some big challenges, Deskins says it doesn’t always have to be this way. West Virginians can do their part by setting a successful example.
“If young men and women in West Virginia don't see those role models, they're probably going to move to other states to find opportunities,” Deskins said. “There are a lot of things that we should have done a long time ago and I wish we had done them 20 years ago, but we have to start sometime.
“Some of our problems are not going away overnight. This drug abuse problem, for example, is not going away overnight. It's a long term problem. And many of our problems are like that. None of them that I know of are really overnight fixes.”