My father and mother were born and brought up in SW Virginia and central Kentucky respectively, both with deep roots over many generations. There was a definite sense of place for both. I was born in Huntington, West Virginia, moved as a child to eastern Kentucky, then to southwestern Virginia, and finally to southern West Virginia for junior high and high school. Mom and Dad lived in this town, Princeton, for the rest of their lives. I thought of it as my home; it was imprinted on me. This part of the country was a great place to be a kid and grow up in the fifties and sixties. But the decline in population and overall economic vitality since then has been remarkable, if that adjective can be used in an almost tragic way. The common thread in eastern Kentucky and West Virginia was/is over-dependence on coal mining. At least Southwestern Virginia had timber/logging/sawmills as well as mining as major driving forces. Perhaps little Galax, Virginia now is doing somewhat better than Paintsville, KY and Princeton, WV. I hope so.
The population of the state of West Virginia now is 1.8 Million. It was 1.8 Million back when we studied civics in high school in the early nineteen-sixties. Wikipedia's update on the state indicates the population is expected to decline another 30,000 by 2030. It's a tragedy that such an inherently beautiful part of the country is suffering this way. However the lack of a diverse economy coupled with the decline of coal, the major industry, one that is dangerous work and caustic for waterways and the environment, has crippled large portions of the state where there are few other options. However policy makers and politicians seem to double down on this industry and argue for the continuation of what will never come back, rather than redirect the efforts to diversify with more modern ways of employment. The state voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump and his "I dig coal" slogans on signs and unrealistic promises. Even today, the population generally supports this man even though he has no compelling way to revitalize the state other than the cheap symbolic artificial "shoveling move" he displays in rallies.
The three largest cities when I was in school, back when we were memorizing the words to "The West Virginia Hills (How majestic and how grand!)" were Huntington, the state capital Charleston, and Wheeling. As a general rule, I always felt they were pretty large, with around 100,000 population each, including outlying areas. In West Virginia, that was big! As a stark reality check of how bad things now are, the "Big Three"now show the following demographic data:
Huntington: 1950-86,000, 2000-51,000, and 2010-49,000.
Charleston: 1960-85,000, 2000-53,000, and 2010-51,000.
Wheeling: 1940-61,000, 2000-31,000, and 2010-28,000
The large city nearest my hometown was Bluefield, a regional center for banking and commerce, mining equipment upkeep, as well as a major construction, repair and maintenance center for the N&W Railroad. Bluefield was "big time" since the city was the largest in the southern part of the state, had an NBC TV station, three or four radio stations, and the regional newspaper. Bluefield's demise, now with significantly boarded up parts of downtown, is signified by these depressing demographics:
Bluefield: 1950-21,000, 2000-11,000, 2010-10,000
As an additional blow to the city's pride, the high school has been downgraded from AAA to AA, signifying a reclassification from a "large" to a "medium" school population.
The state's largest university: West Virginia University, located way up north near the Pennsylvania border and a source of pride for the state, is a major educational institution in all respects with law, medicine, engineering, and many other offerings. Only 7% of the jobs in the state are in advanced industries including R&D or advanced technology. As a result, the drain of new graduates from WVU, Marshall, and other state colleges has continued as promising young people move out of state. Much of any modest recent job growth has been taking place in heavy construction (mining, natural gas pipelines, etc), jobs that are not permanent.
A recent Wall Street Journal article (March 2, 2019) indicates positions in lower wage industries increased by nearly 15% over fifteen years (2001-2016) while higher wage industry positions declined by 3%. The rise in low-paying service-sector jobs combined with declines in high-wage jobs in coal are part of this trend.
By this time, perhaps you have stopped reading this commentary, left the site ... turned the page both literally and proverbially. What exactly am I trying to do with this blog other than to lament the decline of a beautiful place with honest people? Hopefully, facing reality is one of my aims here. Surely the natural beauty and slower pace of life can be marketed.
The cost of living is relatively low, and as you might imagine, the cost of real estate is downright inexpensive. Political reality is needed as well, with innovative solutions based on matching both rural and city lifestyles with creative ideas.
I'd start with an infrastructure program to ensure high-speed Internet is available to allow people to do useful work from home. Ensure more vocational and community-college offerings to make sure welders, electricians, plumbers, and carpenters are produced in good numbers. For sure, educational programs in health care, perhaps the only growth industry in the state, are key both to support the aging and ailing population as well as to provide good jobs and growth. Resorts and leisure time retreats take advantage of the spectacular scenery. The Greenbrier is only the best example of the sort of diamonds the state has to offer.
One would hope that a state struggling like West Virginia would select political leaders who would talk honestly and promote policies that would build for the future, not stubbornly reflect the past. Yet it's important not to overlook the fact that aging workers without many of the skills needed for the current national and international economy need assistance. Learning and skill development on many levels: education, vocational skills, healthcare, and the resort and hospitality industry will be key. In addition, it's essential to provide fast and reliable Internet access making it possible for skilled people to work from homes in "Country Roads" country back to offices in other places.
Enjoy life, it's the only one we will get.
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