The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

October 4, 2013

West Virginia Speaks Up

Rocket Boys Festival forum focuses on ideas to make state better

By Wendy Holdren
Register-Herald Reporter

BECKLEY — The Rocket Boys Festival speaker series “West Virginia Speaks Up” heard a number of ideas on how to improve the state, from reading to our children to legalizing marijuana.

Children and young adults were a recurring theme in many of the speeches, including how to create opportunities for them and how to steer them clear of drugs.

Leslie Baker, director of operations for the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine Complex, said her idea is not new and not at all complex.

“My idea just needs taken off the shelf and re-examined — Read, to ourselves and to others.”

She said that 73 percent of West Virginia fourth graders are not proficient in reading, which is a fundamental life skill.

Poor readers are more likely to drop out of school, not be able to get a job and become incarcerated, Baker said.

“There is no single cause and no single solution.”

She noted the importance of Read Aloud West Virginia, a small non-profit organization with a mission to “raise a state full of readers.”

Baker said students spend 900 hours in class and 7,800 hours outside of class.

She encouraged everyone, parents and the entire community, to start reading to children.

Also with children in mind, Mayor of Mount Hope Michael Martin said values and morals need to be instilled in the youth.

He told a story of how his grandmother taught him civility: “She taught me courtesy, politeness, respect and consideration.”

He said he was raised to respect his fellow human beings, no matter their skin color, religious background or difference of opinion.

“I’ll close with some words from my grandmother. ‘If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.’”

Bobby Pruett, Marshall University head football coach from 1996 to 2004, as well as Don Nehlen, West Virginia University head football coach from 1980 to 2000, said we need to give the young people something to feel good about and to make them feel proud of their state.

“I love it here,” Pruett said. “And we need to instill that in kids here.”

With a slightly older age bracket in mind, Dave Traube, public relations for Raleigh County Schools, said that college graduates in West Virginia aren’t just walking out the door, “they’re sprinting.”

He said that businesses shouldn’t pass up on hiring someone just because they lack experience.

“We need to engage and mentor our millennials and allow them to build the future of West Virginia.”

Jeff Barnes, president and CEO of Barnes Agency in Charleston, said “choosing West Virginia” is very important.

He said The Greenbrier selected his company for their marketing, when they could have selected someone out of state.

“West Virginians should be promoting West Virginia.”

He said no one will be as passionate or as proud of our state as we are.

Robby Moore, an artist at Tamarack, and Randall Reid Smith, commissioner at West Virginia Division of Culture and History, spoke of the importance of arts in the communities in southern West Virginia.

“We need to make West Virginia a destination,” Smith said. “Strong arts will bring strong economic development. It will enhance the lives of families and children.”

Both Rick Jones, Raleigh County magistrate, and Justice Brent Benjamin, chief justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, talked about the drug issues the southern part of the state faces.

Jones suggested that churches take money that would be used towards missions trips and fund long-term treatment facilities in the area.

“Most people can’t place their loved ones in a long-term facility that costs between $10,000 and $25,000.”

He said the out-patient treatments are keeping drug abusers in contact with their dealers before they have a fighting chance to get clean.

Justice Benjamin added on that, saying how important drug courts are and how they can help non-violent offenders turn their lives around.

An idea unlike many of the others came from Steve New, a Beckley attorney.

He said the nation is on the verge of a worldwide food shortage and what an excellent opportunity this is for West Virginia to enter the farming market.

“West Virginia could rise up to meet the potential global catastrophe.”

He said the state has an abundance of resources, great water and land from strip mining jobs, and those resources need to be utilized to create new jobs and bring in more money to the state’s economy.

Another somewhat radical idea came from original Rocket Boy and Prodigy Foundation President Roy Lee Cooke, who said that he believes legalizing marijuana would greatly help the state’s economy.

Not just for medical purposes, but if marijuana was legalized entirely, Cooke said the revenue from taxes could be put into the education system.

He said in Washington state, they are projecting $1.4 billions in cost savings revenue over the next five years.

For West Virginia, Cooke said if marijuana was taxed 6 percent, $40 million could be generated the first year.

“It should be regulated and taxed, just as alcohol is.”

Secretary of State Natalie Tennant was one of the last speakers to the podium, and she said she was happy to be part of such a wonderful event.

“Great, insightful ideas have been generated for something important to all of us — the future of West Virginia.”

She said she wants to ensure West Virginians have the bright future they deserve, and to do that, she believes we should focus on clean coal technology, new jobs in renewable energy and promotion of small businesses and entrepreneurs.

“We face some serious challenges, but we also have solutions.”

She said we must ensure that coal is still a critical part of the energy mix. Coal industries and the federal government need to allow forward movement, and allow development on clean coal technology.

“We should be leading the way in energy independence.”

She said new jobs could be created with renewable energy, which would end the “boom and bust cycle” of coal.

For more information about the rest of the Rocket Boys Festival events, visit

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