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Forecasters upbeat on West Virginia economy, except coal

Nov. 16, 2012 @ 12:15 AM

CHARLESTON -- West Virginia's economy will continue to improve in the next five years, despite ongoing struggles in its mining sector.

That was the forecast offered Thursday at the latest West Virginia Economic Outlook Conference.

Forecasters said West Virginia's economic output and per-capita income should both grow steadily, with unemployment dropping to 5.6 percent by 2017, as gains in such areas as construction and business services outpace continuing declines in mining.

Paul Speaker, a professor at West Virginia University, pegged the annual increases for income and state gross product at 2.2 percent. While that income growth should outpace the national rate, the increase of West Virginia's economic output should fall behind the U.S. growth rate after leading it for several years, Speaker said.

"We're going to grow, but not fast enough. West Virginia will grow a little bit slower than the national economy," Speaker told an audience of business leaders, public officials and others at the Charleston Civic Center.

Speaker said his team at WVU's College of Business and Economists forecast that construction jobs will grow by an average of 5.1 percent annually over the next five years, while the professional and business services sector will expand by 4.4 percent. Education and health services jobs should increase by 2.1 percent. But while incomes in the mining and natural resources sector will grow by just under 1 percent, job losses in that area will continue at a rate averaging 1.7 percent annually between now and 2017.

Lower natural gas prices and a mild winter are among the reasons for the recent drop in West Virginia coal production. State Deputy Revenue Secretary Mark Muchow, another conference speaker, noted that six coal-fired power plants that provide 14 percent of the state's electricity are scheduled for shutdown. But Muchow also said that while coal production is down 7 percent for the year, natural gas production is up by 15 percent as developers tap the Marcellus shale reserve.

Under the forecast offered Thursday, unemployment is expected to average 7 percent this year. While a 5.6 percent rate would mark a significant improvement from that, and from the recession high of 8.5 percent in 2010, it's still higher than the pre-recession rate of 5 percent in November 2008.

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