The West Virginia Community Development Hub works with communities across the state to help them take action to spark and sustain community revitalization and development.
We try our best to work with communities and partners across the entire state, from property redevelopment support in Weirton, to holistic child-oriented community development in Martinsburg, to arts innovation in Princeton.
But just like many of our state leaders and other organizations with a statewide perspective, The Hub has been increasingly focused on providing resources and support to address the economic challenges facing southern West Virginia, and the growing urgency of building a diversified economy in the southern half of our state.
We face a daunting challenge in identifying how to shift an economy that has depended for so long on support from a single major industry.
How can we build jobs, breathe life and vibrancy into struggling communities, and maintain, celebrate and continue supporting the history and culture of our southern coalfields? These questions are the fuel that motivate The Hub’s work, and they are increasingly the questions that our state elected officials are grappling with.
Governor Earl Ray Tomblin succinctly captured the challenge in his 2016 State of the State address:
“… [W]e cannot ignore the unprecedented shift that has taken place in our state and our nation.
Forces beyond our control have severely damaged our coal industry, and even the most optimistic
among us realize it is unlikely coal will ever reach production levels of the past.”
In discussing two projects the state is pursuing to spark economic development in the southern coalfields, Tomblin said “This is just the beginning of what we can do to help diversify the economy of not only this [southern coalfield] region, but our entire state.”
His address was a charge to each of us to undertake activities to grow and diversify West Virginia’s economy – a charge we have been heartened to see undertaken by the 2016 Legislature.
A few bills have particularly caught our eye – and our imagination – as bills that could help to spark economic diversification in our southern coalfields.
HB 2615 – WV Small Business Capital Act
Better known as the Crowdfunding Bill, HB 2615 would allow for West Virginia-based crowdfunding for businesses located or doing business in West Virginia.
Like proposals around Uber, the brunch bill and broadband, the WV Small Business Capital Act proposes to create a 21st century technology business environment in West Virginia.
This bill would create significant opportunity for small business owners and new business startups by eliminating one of their primary barriers to growth: funding.
Both small businesses and new business startups face challenges with funding because lending institutions often find it too risky to loan to them, and are afraid of collapse when a business proposes to expand.
This bill would open the doors to a creative and resourceful utility that would support entrepreneurs and creative, risk-taking business owners.
In a recent Op-Ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Anne Barth of TechConnect WV and Joe Carlucci of the New River Gorge Regional Development Authority recently provided a persuasive argument for the need for this type of capital support.
HB 2615 is already moving through the committee process. It was passed out of the minor House Small Business, Entrepreneurship and Economic Development Committee on Friday, Jan. 22, and is now before the House Finance Committee.
SB 337 – Tax Credits for Business Development on Post-Mine Lands
Governor Tomblin mentioned two economic development proposals relating to post-mine land redevelopment in his State of the State.
Unfortunately, one has ground to a halt because West Virginia did not get selected for the required federal funding, and the second project was described the day after the Governor’s speech by a project partner as being still in the early stages of development.
According to the Metro Kanawha, Tom Clark with the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund said, “I guess you would call it the concept stage… There aren’t any blueprints or anything.”
Senator Ron Stollings, from Boone County, is also advocating for projects that make use of the significant amount of post-mine land in southern West Virginia.
SB 337, a bipartisan bill with 11 co-sponsors, would provide tax credits to any business with at least 20 employees that locates on a post-mine land site. And it’s not a credit to scoff at. It would provide a credit of 50 percent of the business’ net income for the first five years it’s located on the site.
While there are barriers to businesses locating on these sites, including many sites being remote and having limited access and limited infrastructure, this significant tax credit might be a first step towards truly incentivizing business location to these sites.
The bill heads to the Energy, Industry and Mining committee first and then will go before Finance. Keep an eye on it here.
SB 325 – Creating a matching grant program to foster development of creative communities
Senator Ron Miller is back with a new version of a bill we covered last year in the Legislative Hubbub – his creative communities economic development bill.
Senator Miller has almost half the Senate on his bill this year as co-sponsors, but the bill may run into challenges because of its lack of Republican support.
That’s unfortunate because it’s promoting exactly the kind of economic diversification program that our communities need – and the kind they are trying to scratch out with limited resource and capacity.
SB 325 would create a pilot program for Community Sustainability Investment Program, run through the West Virginia Development Office. It would provide matching grant funds to communities to foster innovation planning around six broad areas: technology advancements; community, historic and recreational facilities; aesthetic community and infrastructure improvement; academic innovation, diversity programs and renewable/alternative energy source development.
Matching grants would be available to counties, municipalities, metro governments or local government partnerships in the range from $200,000 – $1 million, depending on the size of the community.
The most interesting aspect of this program is the proposed makeup of the board that would oversee the grant process.
Senator Miller has required that the board include representatives with expertise on technology and broadband issues; community development, creative placemaking and “third spaces”; and history, culture and diversity. This is in addition to representatives or designees from a number of state agencies that need to be better coordinated in their community development efforts (including the Department of Commerce, Agriculture and Education, among others).
We know that communities struggle to access federal and private funding support because of match requirements, and the challenge they have in identifying additional funding sources. This would certainly address that challenge, as well as creating a space where innovative community and economic development planning were taking place.
It’s a vision for the future of West Virginia. It might not be a future we achieve this year, but we support Senator Miller and the other Senate co-sponsors for their continued efforts to get us closer that that diversified, creative economic future waiting for our state.