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From Rust Belt To Business Belt: West Virginia’s Transformation

Sunset view of the Potomac River, from Weverton Cliffs, near Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.
The Mountain State is changing the narrative with a pro-business agenda, investments in diversified industries and a robust workforce to back it up.

West Virginia has turned a new leaf in economic development. After notching nearly $20 billion in capital-investment commitments since 2017, the state has shown that CEOs, as well as its residents, understand West Virginia is a great place to live, work and play.

The state boasts unique education opportunities, ample raw materials, quick access to important markets, America’s second-lowest workers’ compensation insurance rates, the least manufacturing workforce turnover in the nation and a highly responsive economic development team that out-quicks the competition. “We’ve created a great business climate in West Virginia,” says Michael Graney, executive director of the West Virginia Department of Economic Development.

“For years, we were getting desktop reviews and getting passed over,” notes Mitch Carmichael, secretary of the West Virginia Department of Economic Development. “But now we’re actually participating in a number of competitions with the big states. We’ve changed to a completely pro-business, pro-job, pro-growth agenda in the last 10 years.”

 Indeed, what CEOs now see in West Virginia is, first of all, what they don’t see from the past, which included a punitive judicial and regulatory environment and high taxes. Achieving right-to-work status in 2016 removed an obstacle for many CEOs.

 “Those kinds of things have been eliminated and we have been at least at par, if not slightly better than, contiguous states,” Carmichael says. “You take those negatives off the board and bring forth our new value proposition, and companies are interested.”

Major companies, including Procter & Gamble, Toyota Motor and MHI RJ Aviation Group, have taken advantage of locating and staying in West Virginia, while new entrants include Nucor. North America’s largest steel-products company two years ago selected a site near Apple Grove for its new, $3.1 billion sheet mill that will serve crucial markets in the Midwest and Northeast. After construction sustains about 2,000 jobs, the mill will employ about 800 full-time workers.

To attract more major projects, West Virginia’s government leaned into one of its unique attributes: responsiveness. “Because of our collaboration and communication,” Carmichael says, “we can get all the stakeholders together to make an impact and work things out more quickly than we ever have in the past.”

That resonates with business chiefs such as Steve Wright, president of PCC Metals Group, a Berkshire Hathaway company. PCC wanted to build a titanium-melting facility powered by renewable energy, and state officials immediately presented the site of a shuttered aluminum plant in Jackson County—as well as more financial help than PCC was expecting. “I was impressed, for a state-government entity, at the speed at which they were able to move,” Wright says. West Virginia landed the project.

And when BHE Renewables, PCC’s associated company, wanted to provide green energy to the plant via a solar-powered microgrid, the West Virginia legislature passed a new law within two days to permit BHE to operate as a utility. “That’s different from most other states or maybe any other state we’ve worked in,” marvels Alicia Knapp, president and CEO of BHE Renewables. “They really did what it would take to bring this project to the state.”

West Virginia’s economic development engine is trumping other locales in another way: online job postings. Working with the second-largest job aggregator in the U.S., West Virginia is attracting an outsized number of applicants from nearby states, who are checking out surprising opportunities in a place that otherwise might not have been on their radar.

Sure, challenges remain, most notably the state’s ongoing transition from an economy based on selling coal to power plants to a more diversified basket of industries. Coal actually remains a significant resource, both metallurgical and thermal, and automation has made the entire industry safer.

“We’ll have demand for coal for a long time to come,” Graney says. “But we’re being additive with our state’s energy policy, marching along with ‘all of the above’ sources.” Thus, LG Electronics recently launched a strategic initiative to grow ventures in the state to advance the development of new technologies led by renewable energy.

And while the Mountain State lacks the large, flat parcels in other states that can attract investments such as EV, battery and chip plants, officials were able to present an available tract of more than 1,000 acres to Nucor. West Virginia also offers a portfolio of smaller sites that are ideal for participants in manufacturing supply chains. West Virginia’s long history in chemicals, polymers and industrial metals, including an experienced industrial workforce, also can be decisive for many CEOs.

“We’ve been able to change the narrative,” Carmichael says, “from ‘woe is me’ to ‘look at us now.’”


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