Region’s economic report a mixed bag

WHEELING – Even though the region continues losing population, West Virginia University officials believe the burgeoning Marcellus Shale natural gas industry can reinvigorate the Wheeling area.

Only one-third of the jobs lost in the Wheeling Metropolitan Statistical Area during the recession of 2008-09 have returned. The area includes Marshall and Ohio counties in West Virginia, as well as Belmont County in Ohio. However, the average income for area residents increased by 3.1 percent over the past year to $35,500.

During the Tuesday Wheeling Economic Outlook Conference at Oglebay Park, WVU officials and other leaders discussed the positives and negatives of the local economy. Sponsors for the conference included The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register and MVB Bank.

“Wheeling is in the middle of an economic miracle,” said Jose V. “Zito” Sartarelli, Milan Puskar dean of the WVU College of Business and Economics, regarding the leasing, drilling, fracking, pipelining, processing and other economic actions associated with the natural gas business.

However, John Deskins, director of the WVU Bureau of Business and Economic Research, said the Wheeling MSA’s population has dropped to 146,420. The three-county area has lost roughly 40,000 residents since 1976 – and is expected to lose about 300 more residents each year for the next five years.

“We now have fewer than four people for every five people we had in 1976,” Deskins said.

Those living in the Wheeling MSA are also generally older and have less formal education when compared to the rest of the U.S. Roughly 18.4 percent of area residents are age 65 or older, while only 13.7 percent of the nation is at retirement age. Only 17.3 percent of those in the area have a bachelor’s degree, compared to 28.5 percent nationwide.

Nevertheless, the economic outlook seems bright for those who continue living in the Wheeling area, Deskins said. He expects employment to grow by a rate of nearly 1 percent per year until 2018, and predicts that per capita income will grow by nearly 2 percent each year during this time frame.

Deskins expects construction to be one of the strongest areas for job growth over the next several years, partially due to the ongoing need for additional natural gas processing and pipelining infrastructure.

“Continued drilling and extraction of oil, natural gas and byproduct liquids across the Marcellus and Utica shale plays found in the West Virginia and Ohio portions of the metro area bode well for the sector’s outlook,” Deskins’ report states.

Sartarelli also believes the oil and gas business is an economic engine for West Virginia, but hopes to see more Mountain State natives drilling and fracking wells in the future.