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West Virginia University research team makes recommendations

MOOREFIELD — A West Virginia University research team on Friday recommended regionalization as an incentive for future economic growth in the Potomac Highlands.

The study was financed by a US Department of Defense grant to Pendleton County to mitigate the economic loss of the Sugar Grove Naval Base when it shut down operations in 2015.

Instead of using the more than $250,000 payment in the county, the commission decided to look regionally and see how to improve economic conditions long term, said Commissioner Carl Hevener at the close of a presentation held at the Eastern West Virginia Community and Technical College.

In coordination with the Region 8 Planning and Development Council, the County Commission engaged researchers at West Virginia University’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research to develop a Strategic Action Plan to promote economic development in the Potomac Highlands region including Hardy, Grant, Hampshire, Mineral as well as Pendleton counties.

According to a research brochure, the base closure eliminated 158 jobs in the region with 58 jobs lost in secondary industries, such as restaurants, grocery and retail stores, etc., coming as a result of lost income from the base’s workers. Total economic losses were approximately $22 million, with about $16 million coming from income losses at the Sugar Grove base. State and local taxes losses were approximately $561,000.

Eric Bowen, a research assistant professor in the College of Business and Economics, said the economic prosperity action plan was completed through a “four-pronged approach” based on a regional economic impact analysis of the closure of the base, a cluster analysis to target industries for economic development, a workforce and educational assessment, and local business and community stakeholders’ interviews to determine challenges to expansion and recruitment of workers.

Business owners and community leaders indicated business barriers included workforce issues, such as recruitment os skilled workers, poor work ethics and drug and alcohol problems; infrastructure challenges of lack of high-quality cellular phone service and broadband internet; poor transportation connectivity; and limited emergency services.

Business pluses were the quality of life in the area, particularly its rural character and outdoor recreation opportunities; its people; scenery; low traffic; community safety; low taxes; cost of living, etc.

The researchers recommended six strategic actions to promote economic prosperity in the region.

1. Embrace the Potomac Highlands regional identity in economic development efforts, county level decisions, state and federal level resource requests and tourism branding to provide a united front.

2. Assist in recruiting and training a workforce essential to support business retention and local citizen needs.

3. Improve digital communication of economic development opportunities for both businesses and tourism.

4. Collaborate regionally for federal funding opportunities to be competitive on application scoring that values larger population impact and shows regional cooperation and grant management capacity.

5. Develop land use policies that promote housing and lodging growth while preserving the natural assets of the region and address watershed concerns, water resource impacts and other growth consequences.

6. Target primary and emerging growth clusters including advance materials, forest and wood products, business and financial services, information technology and telecommunications, machinery manufacturing and transportation equipment manufacturing.

In conclusion, the researchers said many of the Potomac Highland challenges are not unique, but common among rural areas across the country. The lifestyle may be a draw for existing residents, but low-density development creates “obstacles to attracting businesses and workers from other regions.”

Infrastructure development in roads and telecommunications, although a top priority for local governments, requires resources and investments from the state and federal level.

“Coordination as a region will allow the counties to be united in advocating for these resources to be provided to the region. …We believe that by acting together, the Potomac Highlands region can work to enhance its own economic prosperity,” Bowen emphasized.

Region 8 director Terry Lively said the next step is to take the plan, digest it and get together as economic development planners and make it a “strong part of our planning purpose and growth efforts.”

County Commissioner Gene McConnell added that “we need to get together, prioritize and start working on the things we can do.”