commerce leader takes tour

West Virginia Secretary of Commerce Ed Gaunch, right, speaks after an announcement of an expansion at Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Thursday, March 14, 2019, in Buffalo, W.Va. Toyota Motor Corp. on Thursday announced it is investing an additional $750 million at five U.S. plants. (Sholten Singer/The Herald-Dispatch via AP)

One size doesn’t fit all – at least when it comes to economic development.

Ed Gaunch, West Virginia Department of Commerce secretary, toured both industrial parks in Wyoming County Tuesday morning, then met with several officials as part of his third “listening tour” in the seven months he’s had the position.

Gaunch grew up in Boone County and holds a “passion in my heart to do some special things south of the Kanawha River,” he told the small group. 

He believes the answer is “regional strategies” to expand economic development.

What will work in the northern panhandle or the eastern panhandle will not work in southern West Virginia, he said.

Gaunch and his staff will help to form a group that will include the county commissioners, the three mayors and other town officials, Economic Development Authority members, “and anybody else who can add value to the plan,” he said.

Among the questions the group will address are workforce development, infrastructure needs such as roads, water, sewer as well as broadband needs.

Additionally, the group will focus on improving the tourism industry, how to harness hardwood and pulpwood industries for the area, among other issues.

Gaunch said the group would start there and move forward, project by project, dollar by dollar to attract more economic development.

“I want to see southern West Virginia reach its full potential,” he emphasized.

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“Coal is our survival as long as legislation doesn’t prohibit that,” County Assessor Mike Cook told the commerce secretary.

Cook noted that those now in Washington and in Charleston have improved the coal industry.

The county now has seven underground mines and three surface mines operating, with multiple mines permitted, Cook said.

“We’re waiting with bated breath for the next election,” Cook said.

Of Wyoming County’s 502 square miles, 87 percent is owned by out-of-state landowners, Cook said.

If Twin Falls Resort State Park and the R.D. Bailey Lake project area are added, that total grows to about 91 percent, added Dean Meadows, county Emergency Services director and floodplain manager.

The majority of the remaining usable, or flat, land is in the floodplain, Cook said.

Additionally, the county has drug addiction problems.

Those are the struggles the county has to overcome, he said.

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Dr. Sam Muscari Sr., who is also a county commissioner, told Gaunch his family wants to see the area succeed.

Muscari and his sons operate six medical clinics in four counties along with retail businesses.

“We have offices in Man, Gilbert, Oceana, Mullens, Welch and Pineville,” he said. “We probably have 100 employees.”

Muscari noted the county’s population has fallen from 45,000 in 1980 to just over 18,000 today.

“Tourism is fine, but it’s seasonal,” Muscari told Gaunch.

Meadows noted that 130 properties have been mitigated since the flood of 2001. Mitigated properties must be kept free of permanent structures.

While the mitigations reduced the tax base, they also significantly reduced flood costs, he said.

He also discussed the lack of an emergency generator for Oceana’s water plant. The plant serves 2,500 customers, three schools, and a dialysis center.

Jim Cook, Oceana recorder, said the town had poured the concrete slab for a new generator last week and expect it to be delivered within two weeks.

County Commissioner Randall Aliff explained the county has a slower, “laid-back lifestyle.”

“It’s a great place to raise kids,” he emphasized.

Aliff believes if the county had decent roads and other infrastructure, the county’s slow-paced atmosphere and recreational offerings would appeal to those working in surrounding cities.

Currently, W.Va. 10 is being widened from the Logan County border through Oceana, Pineville, Itmann, and on to the Mercer County line. The Coalfields Expressway is now under construction to the Mullens exit.

Water projects are in various stages of development across the county.

As for broadband, residents have two choices, officials told Gaunch, and neither can be considered reliable.

Christy Bailey, National Coal Heritage Area Authority director, said the area needs to develop tourism.

While tourism jobs aren’t high-paying, the industry does create nicer places to live, she said.

The county needs more things to do and more places to stay in order to become a “destination,” Bailey said.

There are rail-trail opportunities in the county, she said, as well as opportunities focusing on the Guyandotte River, such as kayaking and fishing.

Jim Cook also noted that Oceana is replacing its water and sewer systems, which are more than 70 years old.

He noted the town has applied for several grants, only to be turned down.

As a result, he said, the town has already obtained two loans to continue with the replacements.

Gaunch said his staff would be working to organize the strategy group.

“I will be back,” he promised.

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