The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

February 16, 2014

Hoping for liftoff


— The case for diversifying the state of West Virginia’s economy is past the point of debate. While it is our hope that coal can continue to have a role in our nation’s power-generating matrix, we’ve learned our lesson about over-dependence on a single industry. Particularly being overly dependent on an industry that, in the eyes of federal regulators, is out of fashion.

Natural gas from the Marcellus and Utica shales will fill part of that economic void, but no matter how successful, extractive industries in West Virginia must be supplemented with jobs in other areas. The House of Delegates voted last week to enact Project Launchpad, and we think it’s a smart step in the right direction. Project Launchpad will allow the governor to select 10 projects that will promote economic development in counties or municipalities that come up with the best plans to bring new high-tech businesses and jobs to the state.

The contest, as it were, is intended to focus on emerging technologies, innovative business technology or state-of-the-art technology.

Rewarding new ideas is critical to how far we progress in West Virginia, and how fast. Too often we look to our past for answers, or we find ourselves obsessing about the present. Project Launchpad is a reminder of the necessity of looking to the future.

Delegate Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan, dismisses the proposal, calling it a “scheme of picking winners and losers.”

We think Project Launchpad will reward new thinking, cutting-edge ideas and innovative technologies. And it will bring higher-paying jobs to the state as those ideas blossom into reality. If that’s a scheme, and it works, feel free to call it what you will. We call it good for West Virginians.

Delegate Ray Canterbury, R-Greenbrier, raised questions about the bill’s containing tax exemptions for the entrepreneurs whose projects are selected.

That’s a valid concern. For decades we’ve watched poorer states try to use such sweeteners to lure automakers to locate a plant in those states, or to build a new corporate headquarters. Canterbury is correct in that the tax breaks and outlays those desperate states made to get to the altar with major companies often were not cost-effective in the long run, even if they did win a new plant and add jobs. But Project Launchpad is fundamentally different.

Without question we would like to see a major automaker locate a plant in West Virginia. But the bill passed in the House limits the scope of projects to contiguous acreage that cannot encompass an entire county or municipality.

We believe this limits the scope of the winners in Project Launchpad in a good way. Projects that succeed in being selected won’t be given the farm, just a couple acres of pasture. The nature of the projects begun by the entrepreneurs and startups will be smaller and more nimble. The resulting tax breaks would thus also be smaller, and their impact on local municipalities and counties would be less far-reaching and more manageable than the tax breaks used to attract larger industries.

As we’ve said previously, we’re willing to do whatever it takes to diversify our economy in West Virginia, even at the rate of 30 jobs at a time. Project Launchpad puts that idea into play.