I was fortunate to be able to move back to my home state of West Virginia two years ago to lead the Huntington Regional Chamber of Commerce and return to the city where I grew up. Our Chamber represents more than 550 businesses in a two-county area of West Virginia. While our Chamber does many things, such as advocating for our membership and promoting opportunities in our region, this position has given me greater insight related to a question that I have asked myself throughout my career — How do we make West Virginia a better place to live, work and thrive?
So what are these insights that could be obvious to you, but new to me?
West Virginia is a more diverse state than we realize: It is easy for some people, especially outsiders, to look at West Virginia as one big petri dish filled with the same organism. The truth is that we are far from it. Sure, we may be monochromatic by race when compared to most other states, but our cultural identities, whether genetic or self-chosen, are visible. Our diversity from one end of the state to the other is palpable in aspects like geography, economy, politics, culture and even accents. We have viewed this recently in politics, with a more blue (Democratic) Morgantown and Martinsburg regions, but remaining a red (Republican) state for the most part. We see it in areas where West Virginia is growing and where it is not. And we see it as a possible growing disconnect between Northern West Virginia and Southern West Virginia, which concerns me greatly.
We are the only state totally contained within Appalachia: As goes West Virginia, so goes Appalachia, and the converse is true as well. To fix one, we must also fix the other, and it will require patience and hard work by those of us who live here.
A new economy doesn't have to destroy the previous economy to be created: Coal and natural gas will be produced and used in West Virginia for generations to come, but these industries will change in stature and influence moving forward. For those who want to sacrifice the use of these natural assets for other development, you are creating an even more difficult playing field for your efforts. Focus on creating your new opportunities, but not at the expense or detriment of other employers.
If you're unfairly critical, I'm tuning you out: I love my hometown of Huntington, but we have more than our fair share of pessimists. I'm told this negativity dates back well before my time, but it shows no signs of diminishing. While we need to listen to reasonable concerns and criticism, those who only see the downside of everything need a new perspective or a new address.
We need to change "The Struggle to Stay" to "Maybe You Should Leave": I know it's a common refrain from some of our residents that it is difficult to live in West Virginia. Like many of us, I worry greatly about the population decline in West Virginia and where it may lead us. However, if you only see negativity here and have soiled to the possibility that the state can be improved and succeed, maybe you should leave.
No cavalry is coming to save us: If we are expecting a big bag of government cash or yet another "war on poverty" to solve West Virginia's problems, we're mistaken. It's up to us, the remaining West Virginians to do all we can to improve the state. Help is simply not on the way.
Playing the Long Game: I'm in no way a patient person, but improvement will take time and perseverance. Positive change will take longer than a budget year or an elected term of office, but can occur, and it needs to start with a change in both our individual and collective mindsets.
Find what we can agree upon: As West Virginians and Appalachians, we are not stereotypically known for our ability to play well with others or even our fellow citizens. We must overcome this weakness. Being open to new people and new ideas must become commonplace here, even if these new people and ideas challenge or even conflict with how we see the world. It is never easy to do, but well worth the investment of time and patience.
To the rest of the world, West Virginia is a blank canvas that we can paint. In my opinion, we have no greater opportunity ahead of us than to finally tell West Virginia's story to the rest of the world. It's a story worth telling, and only we West Virginians can tell it.
Bill Bissett is the president and CEO of the Huntington Regional Chamber of Commerce, which represents more than 550 businesses in the Cabell and Wayne county area.