CHARLESTON — Over the past year, officials with the West Virginia Commerce Department and the West Virginia Development Office have continued to land one big fish after the next.
From a wind farm planned for a former coal mine site to a test center for an emerging mode of transportation, those responsible for the state’s economic development have brought in projects with the promise of thousands of new jobs and million of dollars in future taxes.
“The announcements kind of speak for themselves,” said Commerce Secretary Ed Gaunch. “I would say that we’re really on a record pace. From my standpoint, I think you’ll see more of this going forward.”
“We’re just getting started,” he said. “This diversification effort, this intentional effort are really moving the needle forward.”
Other notable recent victories include the expansion of the workforce at the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries location in Bridgeport; supply company Klöckner Pentaplast has chosen its production facility in Beaver for its production expansion; and Gruppo Fanti, an Italian metal packaging manufacturing company, has announced plans to open a plant in Weirton.
The staff of the Commerce Department and the Development Office are due much of the credit for the recent successes, Gaunch said.
“We’ve been very intentional, we’ve been strategic, and we’ve been very results-oriented in what we’ve asked our people to do,” he said.
The two agencies have forged meaningful working partnerships with other state agencies, Gaunch said.
“K though 12 education, the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Environmental Protection and even to some degree the Department of Heath and Human Resources,” he said. “We’ve learned to work together.”
The Commerce Department and the Development Office also adopted a “regionalized” approach to economic development, one that highlights the existing strengths and resources available in the different parts of the state, Gaunch said.
“When people learn that they can do much more together as a region than they can as an individual city or town or county, then much better things happen,” he said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has obviously changed the way the business of economic development is conducted, but it has also presented unique opportunities, Graney said.
“Traditionally we had attended trade shows and been on missions and visited companies at their headquarters, but we haven’t been able to do that in 10 months and probably won’t be able to do so for the foreseeable future,” he said.
Focus has shifted online, and efforts have been thrown behind an aggressive digital marketing strategy, Graney said.
“It’s curious that we were able to stand up this effort in the face of … totally changing our direction and, frankly, in many ways making us that much more attractive,” he said.
There are several initiatives the two agencies would like to see lawmakers and the governor support in order to further promote economic development efforts in the state, Graney said.
“Because every one of our existing businesses and every one of our prospective acquisition candidates is concerned about workforce, we would like to restore the funding to the Governor’s Guaranteed Workforce effort that was taken away several administrations ago during some lean years,” Graney said.
The program provided new or expanding companies training funds and technical assistance to support effective employee training strategies.
“When we’re making an offer to a new business, they are definitely very interested in that, in particular, if they are represented by a site consultant,” Graney said. “Frankly, every state that we compete against, every state in the union has something very similar to this.”
Another item on the two agencies’ economic development wish list is the creation of a “closing fund,” which would give the state funds to provide final incentives to close a deal, Graney said.
“Many of the states we compete against have a closing fund that allows for that last-minute offer that potentially lures you into locating in West Virginia,” he said. “It may be that another state has a bigger checkbook than we do, and our current methodology for doing that is complicated and very legal fee intensive. We’d like to see a little bit more flexibility there.”
The state also needs to pursue strategies focused on developing build-ready sites, Graney said.
“We still have some challenges with having shovel-ready, buildable sites in the state of West Virginia,” he said. “Often, unfortunately we’re just passed over because we don’t have a site that’s ready to build on.”
Although he agreed that most states tend to have deeper pockets than West Virginia, no one can match its citizens’ work ethic, Gaunch said.
“Nobody out-hustles us, and nobody out-works us,” he said. “We think that we have the advantage there.”