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THE 1990s: Tri-State found confidence in '90s

Jan. 15, 2009 @ 10:11 AM

Editor's note: This story was originally published Dec. 19, 1999.

Gaston Caperton suffered dyslexia as a child, but he proved that he could spell "jobs" and "education" with a distinctive twang as West Virginia's energetic governor from 1989 until 1997.

Caperton, a Democrat whose background was in business, hammered away at the state's two most glaring shortcomings during his eight-year tenure in Charleston until things began to turn around during a decade of highs and lows for West Virginia and the Tri-State.

"When I look at the 1990s," says Huntington Mayor Jean Dean, "I see mostly positives. I think it was a decade when we discovered our self-confidence. We learned that if we are going to accomplish anything, we can't depend on other people to do it for us.

"We have to do it ourselves."

That was part of Caperton's message, too. When the Charleston businessman took office, the state had the nation's highest unemployment rate - hovering near 10 percent. By 1996, West Virginia's once-listing economic ship had righted itself and unemployment had fallen below 6 percent.

In education, Caperton and state schools Superintendent Hank Marockie launched an effort to improve school facilities and bring in new technology. The emphasis was on consolidation, which was achieved through the state School Building Authority established in 1990.

By the end of the decade, the SBA had spent $651 million on new school buildings and leveraged another $296 million generated by county school bonds. During that period, the authority had built 74 new schools - 18 high schools, 28 middle schools and 28 elementary schools.

Now director of a national education testing program, Caperton said the perception of West Virginia's education system has changed because of initiatives taken under his administration.

"I don't think a state in the country made as much improvement in education as West Virginia did in the 1990s," Caperton says from his New York office. "We are admired everywhere for our progress. That doesn't mean that we don't need to continue improving.

"We have to continue our efforts in technology. We're on top now and we need to stay there."

The consolidation and technology trend did not bypass Cabell and Wayne counties. Cabell County voters passed a $45 million school bond in the early part of the 1990s to build two of the state's largest high schools. Cabell Midland, a consolidation of Milton and Barboursville high schools, opened in 1994. Huntington High, built in 1996 on a hilltop near the Hal Greer Boulevard interchange off Interstate 64, merged Huntington East and Huntington High.

Thanks to a $17.4 million SBA grant, Wayne County consolidated Vinson, Ceredo-Kenova and Buffalo into a new Spring Valley High School in 1998.

The region also picked up on Caperton's "jobs" theme for the decade. It fell to the depths of depression in 1993 when Owens-Illinois closed its glass bottle factory just before Christmas leaving 600 people out of work. But, through a concentrated effort headed by Marshall, The Herald-Dispatch and WSAZ-TV called "Our Jobs, Our Children, Our Future," the area began to recover from the loss.

"I think the closing of Owens-Illinois was a defining moment of this area," says Jerry McDonald, the man the Huntington Area Development Council brought in to direct its search for new businesses.

"The community drew a line in the sand after that plant closed. We have created 7,000 jobs in this area since then."

No one can look at the 1990s and ignore the obvious growth of Marshall during the period, both in number of students and in physical facilities.

Under the guidance of President J. Wade Gilley, the university added more than $320 million in capital improvements, including the John Deaver Drinko Library, the Marshall University Medical Center and the Joan C. Edwards Performing Arts Center. It's enrollment grew from 12,000 to about 16,000.

Marshall's football program, once known for its futility, became the most successful in the nation during the decade with coaches Jim Donnan and Bobby Pruett. The Thundering Herd, led by two Heisman Trophy candidates Chad Pennington (1999) and Randy Moss (1997), compiled a combined 111-25 record during the period.

The victories included NCAA Division I-AA championships in 1992 and 1997 and three straight Mid-American Conference titles.

"The positive impact that athletics has had in Marshall's growth is difficult to calculate," Alan Gould, director of Marshall's John Deaver Drinko Center, says. "The New York Times wrote a story about Chad Pennington last week. You can't buy that kind of positive exposure.

"I just think winning is contagious, and the whole university has benefited from the football team's success."

Gould, who served as an interim president between Dale F. Nitzschke and Gilley, says that Gilley deserves a lot of the credit for the university's growth.

"I would give Wade considerable credit for the good things that have happened during his tenure," Gould says. "He cultivated a significant number of people who were able to recognize his dreams for Marshall.

"Together, they made them come true."

Although most observers chalk up more wins than losses for West Virginia and the region during the 1990s, they aren't ignoring the setbacks and the work still ahead.

Marshall political science professor Troy Stewart points to a quote from late Charleston Gazette editor Don Marsh when looking at West Virginia during the 1990s.

"He said West Virginia was both his pride and his sorrow," Stewart says. "For every advance we made, there seems to be a setback. There has never been a golden age of education in West Virginia. By any indicator, we are still on the low side of education.

"We still are near the bottom in the percentage of high school students going to college. It's nice to know how to bring home the bacon, but it's better to know who Bacon was. Until our people recognize the value of a good education, we're never going to go very far."

Stewart says the state is still taxing the wrong people.

"We're taxing the poor people who can least afford it, and letting the extractive industries get rich at our expense," he says.

As the decade comes to a close, the region is still suffering from some major economic setbacks. Ashland Inc. moved its headquarters to Covington, Ky., in 1998, a year after the company merged its Super America service station operations with Marathon Petroleum and transferred between 275 and 350 people to Findlay, Ohio.

In the headquarters move from Russell, Ky., Ashland eliminated about 220 jobs and moved 100 more to Covington.

Last month, Ironton Iron announced it is closing, costing another 600 good-paying jobs.

West Virginia's coal industry also is reeling from a federal court ruling on mountaintop removal this year. Hundreds of coal industry employees have been laid off in Logan, Mingo, Boone and Wyoming counties.

Those losses are weighed with the opening of the Toyota engine plant in Buffalo, Putnam County, and the Okuno Industries plant in Prichard, Wayne County.

Caperton has been following the state's progress over the past three years with interest.

"I still look at the 1990s in West Virginia as the turnaround decade," he says. " I have often said it's like D-Day. We have landed on the beach and established a beachhead. But, we haven't won the war.

"We have to continue progressing. Now, we're in the game with most of the other states. We have to continue getting better and better."


 

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