Ohio County residents earn most in W.Va.

WHEELING — Jobs in law, health care, education, finance and numerous other careers help Ohio County residents earn higher per capita income than those in any other West Virginia county, and about 35 percent more than the statewide average.

Also, amid ongoing urban redevelopment and economic activity throughout the Marcellus and Utica shale fields, the Wheeling area should see employment levels rise by about 1 percent each each year until 2022. And those numbers do not account for the wave of growth that could accompany the construction of a $6 billion ethane cracker in Belmont County, West Virginia University researchers and other organizers said Wednesday during the Wheeling Area Economic Outlook Conference.

Officials estimate the ethane cracker would bring thousands of construction jobs, as well as hundreds of permanent jobs once the plant enters operation. Hundreds or even thousands of “spin-off” jobs could also result from the ethane cracker’s presence, officials believe.

All of this hinges, however, on Thailand-based PTT Global Chemical making an affirmative decision on the plant. Company officials maintain they hope to make a final determination by the end of this year.

On Wednesday, John Deskins, director of the Bureau for Business and Economic Research at WVU, said the economy throughout the Wheeling area — which he considers Ohio, Belmont, Marshall and Wetzel counties — will expand even without an ethane cracker. He said as a whole, the area should see job growth of about 1 percent each year for the next five years.

“This forecast does not account for an ethane cracker in Belmont County,” Deskins said.

Deskins’ data show Ohio County residents with per capita incomes of $49,500, a number he said is the highest of all 55 Mountain State counties. Other local counties’ per-capita incomes are as follows: $37,000 for Belmont County; $36,500 for Marshall County; and $34,700 for Wetzel County. He also said these numbers should increase by about 2.2 percent annually for the next five years.

However, the picture is not entirely a thing of beauty, Deskins said.

Depressed natural gas and coal prices contributed to a loss of 2,300 jobs throughout the four counties from late-2014 to mid-2016, although Deskins said the region has since regained about 900 of these jobs.

“We’ve finally hit bottom and are growing again,” he added. “Barring any unexpected shock, it should continue.”

Deskins also said the area’s aging population contributes to the challenge.

“We have more deaths than births,” he said. “That is a real heavy weight on our economic potential.”

Along with several others Wednesday, Deskins spoke of the ongoing need for Wheeling and West Virginia to diversify their economies and educate their workers.

“The key to this is partnership on so many levels,” West Virginia Northern Community College President Vicki Riley said. “We just have to keep that ball rolling down the road.”

Mike Jacoby, vice president of the Appalachian Partnership for Economic Growth, said area residents must show determination, especially when it comes to attracting the ethane cracker. He said Royal Dutch Shell took several years before ultimately deciding to build a similar project in Beaver County, Pa.

“The quitters left this region a long time ago,” Jacoby said.

“These things just take time,” added Joe Eddy, president of Eagle Manufacturing in Wellsburg. “Let’s put our money on PTT Global because it makes sense.”

At this time, two contractors continue working on plans to build the potential ethane cracker: Fluor Corp. and Bechtel Group Inc. PTT officials would need to determine which of these plans, if any, is economically feasible for them to proceed.

“From what we see, they are taking all the right steps toward eventually building something,” Jacoby said.

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