By Sarah Mansheim
We can get them to visit, but we can’t make them stay.
While tourism continues to be a driving economic force in the Greenbrier Valley and other parts of the Mountain State, West Virginia is losing population faster than any other state in the union. According to the U.S. Census bureau, last year West Virginia lost nearly 3,300 residents, with 39 out of 55 counties losing population, particularly in the Southern coal fields. Most population gains were in Morgantown and Eastern Panhandle counties.
Much of this decline is due to the death rates exceeding birth rates, as they have since 2010, but the aging population is not the only culprit in population decline. Census data also points to out-migration as a factor, with economics as the driving force. As demand for coal slows, the state’s overall economy has declined, and, without a new plan for economic development in the state, there is little draw for younger workers to stay in West Virginia, or move into the state.
Last weekend, Generation West Virginia Executive Director Natalie Roper wrote an op-ed in the Charleston Gazette, criticizing the Legislature for the anti-business, backward-looking bills that were introduced and passed in last month’s session.
“Despite the publicized session priority to pass laws that make our state a place where more of our youth can live and work, the Legislature’s votes prioritized outdated infrastructure that does not attract, and even repels, the next generation of employers and employees,” she said in the commentary.
She continued, “I have yet to meet a young person who wants to live or work in a state that undervalues the importance of high-speed internet. This isn’t about young people wanting the ability to check Twitter at all times. It is about our generation recognizing that the internet serves as a foundation for all 21st-century economic development and information sharing. To deny this is to deny opportunities for revitalization and access to services.”
Roper said the bill (SB488) that would have built such infrastructure was tabled. That, she said, along with the Legislature’s attempt to pass HB2881, a thinly veiled bill ensuring that people have no protection from losing housing or a job thanks to their LGBT status, is another black eye on the state.
“I have yet to meet a young person who wants to live or work in a state that is known for its persistent efforts to discriminate against LGBT employees, students and families.”
HB2881 was ultimately tabled thanks to a loud outcry from West Virginia citizens.
Roper’s point was driven home this week on a national level, as businesses faced off against the state government in Indiana, whose Religious Freedom Restoration Act was signed into law, allowing businesses to discriminate against LGBT people on the basis of religion. After Governor Mike Pence signed the bill into law, cities such as Denver, Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco banned all official travel to the state, along with the state governments of New York, Connecticut, Washington and New York.
Businesses spoke out too: the NCAA said it will rethink holding its college basketball championship games in the city, and corporations such as Angie’s List, Dow Agroscience, Salesforce and Subaru threatened to take their business elsewhere.
The pressure seems to have helped; this week, anti-discriminatory language was added to the bill.
Locally, West Virginia lawmakers have been taken to task to ensure that their backward looking policies don’t create another situation here. That way, when people visit West Virginia for its vibrant outdoors lifestyle, they may be able to stay for the jobs.