Diversification needed in West Virginia

During a conference held Thursday at the Greenbrier Resort, WVU President Gordon Gee and other education and business officials discussed the importance of diversification in the state’s economy.

Among the suggested areas are plastics and chemical manufacturing, cybersecurity, higher-end tourism and automotive assembly.

It’s all part of a study to establish a “roadmap” for West Virginia’s future, looking for new growth opportunities and ways to improve our state.

West Virginia Forward, as the initiative is called, is expected to have its full report out in the next few weeks. It has involved WVU, Marshall University and the West Virginia Department of Commerce.

The need for diversification has been discussed for decades, yet some areas have been slower than others to take up the flag.

There is a mindset among West Virginia where we fail to see the downsizing or decline of industries and businesses upon which we have relied for so long.

It can be difficult to admit there is a need for change.

While coal still has a presence, and undoubtedly will continue to do so, it is no longer the king among West Virginia’s industries.

It’s a similar situation with steel. As a result of various circumstances, it is not as strong as it once was. Some aspects of the industry still operate here, but much of them are finishing operations and distribution centers.

Areas of central West Virginia have seen involvement from the automotive industry, with several companies locating facilities for the manufacturing of parts.

That is an area which could have potential throughout West Virginia.

The Northern Panhandle is particularly well placed for the natural gas industry, as well as plastics. One of our local companies, Eagle Manufacturing, has been doing quite well in recent years with the development of its various plastics products, for example. There are certain to be other avenues which could be a good fit for our area as exploration and drilling in the Marcellus and Utica shale plays continue.

In the last year, we have seen developments in Weirton because of the natural gas industry, with two manufacturing companies officially coming to the city.

Cybersecurity also could be advantageous, with some growth seen in that area in Pittsburgh. It is only natural some of that may spill our way as well.

The Clarksburg area already has benefited from the cyber world, with several data centers developed for the federal government and some areas of the private sector.

Hospitality and tourism can take many forms, whether it be a series of bed and breakfasts, hotels and resorts. The key with that, of course, is to have something to draw visitors. The Greenbrier, the site of Thursday’s event, for example, has a variety of attractions and activities established throughout its grounds.

West Virginia’s natural attractions cannot be forgotten, either. With bicycle trails, rafting, rock climbing, fishing, ziplining and more available in different areas.

We also have an expanding industry of wineries and breweries in West Virginia. Tourism, of course, also is reliant on good marketing.

Diversification is greatly needed if West Virginia’s economy is to grow. We need new types of businesses to be willing to locate here, which means we also need workers who are willing and able to do the jobs which would come as a result.

There are many who are working to find and attract new opportunities to our region and our state. It won’t happen overnight. It will take some time.

We just need to be open to the change we need in order to make it happen.

(Howell, a resident of Colliers, is managing editor of The Weirton Daily Times, and can be contacted at chowell@weirtondailytimes.com or followed on Twitter @CHowellWDT)