The Hub Seeks: Budding journalism and communications professional for 2016 project

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Photo by Always Shooting/FlickrrCC

Photo by Always Shooting/FlickrrCC

The West Virginia Community Development Hub is looking for a journalism/communications-minded person for a VISTA role with The Hub in 2016.

The perfect person will have strong writing and research skills to help us explore community development successes in West Virginia. Must be an independent thinker with a passion for uncovering stories about the great things happening in our communities.

The role involves wide-reaching and inspiring storytelling and research about great things happening in West Virginia.

The VISTA will be a key contributor to The Hub’s State of Our Communities report project, and will be charged with examining community development initiatives across West Virginia, and telling compelling and effective stories about them, quickly and concisely.

Working alongside our Communications Director, a longtime newspaper editor and manager of newsrooms (that’s me), this would be a great opportunity for a budding journalist looking to build their story generation chops.

What’s a VISTA, exactly? Here’s some more info.

Many people use VISTA positions as smart stepping stones in their careers. The VISTA that work with The Hub are highly educated, passionate and talented people who are using their VISTA placement to build their resume in their fields of choice.

If you’re curious, let’s talk. The role involves wide-reaching and inspiring storytelling and research about great things happening in communities across West Virginia. It would be a remarkable learning experience, and would include professional training opportunities depending on your interests.

Email me.

Jake-Lynch

 

Gazette-Mail: The Simple Power of People Working Together is Making a Real Difference in West Virginia

Photo by Chris Dorst/Gazette-Mail

Photo by Chris Dorst/Gazette-Mail

Bill Curry/Charleston Gazette Op-Ed

It often seems from what we read about West Virginia that little has been done to improve our state and much is being done to tear it down. However, the facts are different, and many good things are being done to improve our future.

One must pay attention to seemingly small independent citizen-driven initiatives. Together, the many independent initiatives represent a groundswell of new economic improvements that will have long-term positive impacts on the state.

Together, the many independent initiatives represent a groundswell of new economic improvements.

As the co-founder and chairman of the Coal River Group, one of these citizen volunteer groups, I have been involved with many people who simply say, “let’s get ’er done.”

While politicians continue to defend old-fashioned out-of-date concepts, jobs keep disappearing. The daily news is loaded with negative poll results — yet every day hundreds of citizen volunteers wake up with one thing in mind: These devoted folks simply say “let’s go out and fix something that will benefit our community.”

The Coal River Group started over 11 years ago to try to fix a very troubled and abused river system. The 88 miles of rivers with 560 feeder streams had been all but written off by environmental officials, industry and government, simply because they looked like they were unfixable.

Volunteers cleaned up trash and old tires and successfully promoted funding of over $30 million in sewage system expansions.

The small volunteer organization, The Coal River Watershed Group, took on the cleanup and during the past 11 years they exposed the truth that the rivers were not nearly as bad as reported. Volunteers cleaned up trash and old tires and successfully promoted funding of over $30 million in sewage system expansions.

While much of the state’s leadership, well-intentioned groups and well-spoken experts wrote off the Coal Rivers, citizens who had lived their lives on the river went about the arduous job of cleaning up other people’s trash — and recruited neighbors and others to join in on the fun…

Read the full story at wvgazettemail.com

 

2016 Set to Be A Big Year for Cycling in West Virginia

bike2016 is shaping up to be a major year for cycling in West Virginia.

The state’s first-ever Bike Summit is happening in Charleston on April 17-18. Join on Sunday for free group bike rides followed by a reception. Stay for Monday’s sessions to learn how planners, engineers, public health officials, trail advocates, and of course, cyclists, are preparing to work together to make West Virginia a better place to ride.

And here are some rides coming up in 2016 worth training for:

April 30
Appalachian Spring Spectacular Bonus Ride70 – 85 miles, and 7,000 feet of climbing.

May 1
Appalachian Spring Spectacular: offers 4 different routes ranging from 25 – 60 miles.

June (exact dates TBA)
WVU Extension 4-H Outspoken bike ride: 250 mile ride starting in Jefferson County and ending at WVU Jackson’s Mill 4-H camp.

June 19-22
Wild and Wonderful North Bend Rail Trail sojourn, 4 days of riding with the national Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

July 16
Wheels of Hope: offers 4 options ranging from 29 miles to a 107 mile century with 8500+ feet of climbing. Start training now!


 

If mountain biking is your thing, check out the WV Mountain Bike Association schedule of races and events.

And find local bike clubs and bike shops near you with our West Virginia Physical Activity Network directory: WVPAN/cycling

Christina-Hunt

 

Up To Speed: The Latest on the Campaign for Better Broadband

Photo by Dennis Skley/FlickrCC

Photo by Dennis Skley/FlickrCC

On Sunday, the Federal Communications Commission put out the 2016 Broadband Progress Report, and it showed that broadband access in West Virginia is improving.

Thirty percent of West Virginians now lack access to broadband compared to the 2015 statistics of 56 percent. But rural communities suffer the most – 48 percent of residents in these areas are without access to broadband.

554,124 West Virginians are limited in their ability to access online education, tele-health, expanded economic markets, and online government services.

While gains have been made, 70 percent broadband access still means that 554,124 West Virginians are limited in their ability to access online education, tele-health, expanded economic markets, and online government services. There is still work to be done, and it’s happening now.

There are three bills relating to broadband that have been proposed in the 2016 legislative session so far.

 

Defining “High Speed”

HB 2551 would prohibit internet service providers from offering to provide high speed internet service that is not at least 10 megabytes per second. This bill protects consumers from unfair or deceptive marketing from a telecommunications provider.

 

Tax Credits for Servicing Underserved Areas

SB 16 would provide tax credits to telecommunications companies that bring high-speed Internet service to homes and businesses that currently don’t have it.

The companies would receive a $500 tax credit for each new area they provide service to, and the state would award no more than $1 million a year in tax credits for all Internet providers combined.

Like building the internet equivalent of state and county roads. 

These tax breaks are expected to cost the state about $6.1 million over the life of the program — about six years. This bill represents the “last mile solution,” providing an option to incentivize companies to build out internet from the off ramps of the  “middle mile” interstate system to individual homes and businesses.

This solution is like building the internet equivalent of state and county roads. The original version of the bill would have allowed companies to simultaneously collect state tax credits and federal subsidies like Connect America Funds. On Friday, members of the Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Committee revised the bill so that companies can not take the tax credit on construction paid for with federal funds. The bill passed and now goes to the Senate Finance Committee. It is not yet on the agenda.

Photo by Mr. Nixter/FlickrCC

Photo by Mr. Nixter/FlickrCC

Building the Middle Mile

SB 315 would allow the state to sell bonds to create a 2,500 middle mile fiber loop throughout the state, estimated to cost a total of $72 million to construct.

After completion, Internet service providers would lease access to this middle mile network, with the proceeds used to cover construction costs and upkeep of the line.

Internet service providers would lease access to this middle mile network, with the proceeds used to cover construction costs and upkeep of the line.

The state’s current middle mile network is owned by large ISPs who can charge smaller providers a high price for access, limiting competition.

The idea behind this “middle mile solution” is that a state-owned middle mile network would increase competition and level the playing field for internet providers of all sizes, resulting in faster, more affordable internet.

Senator Walters’ SB 315 passed out of the Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and now goes to the Senate Government Organization Committee. It is also not yet on the agenda.

SB 315 has seen significant pushback from the cable and telecommunications companies, who instead support SB 16 as a solution. In the Charleston Gazette on Sunday, Mark Polen, executive director of the West Virginia Cable Television Association, said that while SB 16 isn’t necessarily a “cure-all,” it “sounds like a reasonable approach.” This same article highlights support from Senator Ed Gaunch as well: “I like the idea of incentivizing [Internet providers] to get broadband to these unserved areas.”

The challenge of broadband access has been framed as an either/or debate – Last Mile or Middle Mile. However, I think the problem lies in both a middle mile network that limits competition, and a lack of last mile infrastructure to homes and businesses. We need to invest in strong middle and last mile solutions to see serious broadband improvements in the state.

Hi, Natalie

Zero Bills in Three Weeks: What is Happening in the Senate Economic Development Committee?

Photo by WV Legislature Photography.

Photo by WV Legislature Photography.

We don’t normally do really deep dives into the work of specific committees, but this week the lack of movement on economic development bills got us thinking about what exactly the economic development committees have been doing over the past 3 ½ weeks.

Why hasn’t the Senate Economic Development Committee considered any bills in its last three meetings?

They’ve been meeting.

They’ve been talking about things.

On the House side they’ve even passed out a couple of bills.

But on the Senate side it’s been a lot of… nothing.

We are concerned about what’s happening in that committee in particular because they are sitting on a bill that we care very, very much about: the Neighborhood Investment Program (NIP) Act.

We use NIP funds at The Hub for donations and we know NIP funding supports and amplifies donations for many other nonprofits across the state.

This is a priority piece of legislation for nonprofits and for state philanthropists. Philanthropy WV and the WV Nonprofit Association are leading the charge in advocating for this bill, and has tons of great resources on it for those of you who want more information on the program.

So what’s going on with the NIP bill? Why hasn’t the Senate Economic Development Committee considered it – or any other bill for that matter –  in its last three meetings?

 

“Where Bills Go to Die.”

It is commonly known at the Capitol that certain committees are where bills go to die. (Check out this great, though dated, diagram that the Gazette put out when the Democrats were in charge of the Legislature that shows the many ways bills die during the legislative process…)

After looking into the work of our Senate Economic Development Committee over the past year, we’ve got to wonder: Is this a committee where bills are sent to die?

Over in the Senate, the Economic Development Committee has yet to consider a single bill on its docket.

The House Economic Development Committee doesn’t see a huge amount of bills each year (usually between 15-20), but it gets work done on moving them through its committee.

It’s already considered three bills in the past two weeks, and passed 2/3rds of them out of committee. Last year it passed seven bills and one study resolution, though thirteen bills died before they were considered by the committee.

Over in the Senate, though, the Economic Development Committee has yet to consider a single bill on its docket (six currently wait consideration by the committee).

Instead, it’s spent the past three weeks hearing presentations on issues that are not before the committee at all: farmers market sales, a statewide small business research program, the earned income tax credit and, most recently, an update on how successful the Regional Tech Park in South Charleston has been.

To its credit, these are all issues that certainly impact economic development in West Virginia. The opportunity for economic growth around tech development seems like a big piece of the future for our state.

But the purpose of committees is to consider bills and move them on so that the wheels of law-making can keep turning.

That doesn’t seem to be happening in this committee. And we can’t quite figure out why.

We’ll be watching again next Wednesday at 1 p.m. (You should too.) We’re hopeful that more proposed economic development bills will be put on the committee’s docket – and that they’ll get some fire under them to start talking economic development legislation.

Stephanie-Tyree

Could Expansion of Home Rule Cause the End of Home Rule Innovation?

Photo by clarksburgpost.com

Photo by clarksburgpost.com

The Municipal Home Rule Pilot Project continues to attract attention this year at the Legislature, as it does every year.

West Virginia has more than two dozen cities in the home rule pilot program, with more cities seeking to participate in the program each year. Home rule municipalities serve as a central space for innovation and creativity, and some of the most innovative ordinances to address vacant and dilapidated properties are happening in home rule cities.

The question before the Legislature this year is, once again, should the state keep home rule? Should it be expanded to include all cities, or eliminated to remove the preferential flexibility that it gives some cities?

 

Home rule ordinances for all municipalities?

A carryover bill (meaning a bill introduced in the House last year that didn’t pass and was automatically re-introduced this year) currently before the House Government Organization Committee would eliminate the Municipal Home Rule Pilot Program and give all municipalities the authority to enact ordinances that have been put in place by current home rule communities.

Introduced by Delegate Kelli Sobonya, HB 2913 is intended to expand the authority of home rule across the state, eliminating the application and review process that cities must go through before the Municipal Home Rule Board to become a home rule community.

 

The Impact of Home Rule on Dilapidated Property Policies

Home rule has been a significant tool used by municipalities to expand their powers to address vacant and dilapidated properties.

Since the pilot program was started in 2008, 28 cities have been approved as home rule municipalities, and 23 out of the 28 have proposed some type of ordinance focused on addressing dilapidated structures within their municipality.

Cities that have already implemented this type of program have had significant success in reducing blight.

The most frequently proposed ordinance is an on-spot citation program. This is a program where city officials are authorized to give warnings and citations on-the-spot when they observe a nuisance or property code violation.

Cities that have already implemented this type of program have had significant success in reducing violations and blight, often through merely issuing Notices of Violation prior to issuing citations. For example, in Charleston more than 87 percent of violations were corrected prior to receiving a citation.

Cities have also looked at other innovative tools to address dilapidated properties through their home rule authority, including creating vacant property registries (now permitted for all cities), authorizing the city to enter properties to abate and repair nuisances without a court order and to place a lien on the property for the cost of the abatement/repair, and proposing to reduce the time for tax sales for property in significant disrepair.

We’ve put together a chart about each of the home rule dilapidated property proposals for those of you who are really interested. Fair warning, it’s based on the information provided by the WV Dept. of Commerce, and seems to be from late 2015, so updates may have happened since there. Here it is for you.

 

Potential Unintended Impacts of HB 2913

The challenge with HB 2913, beyond the fact that the House Gov Org Chairman has publicly said he’s against it, is that it only allows municipalities to implement ordinances that have already been enacted by current home rule cities. A number of home rule cities are still working to implement the ordinances they set out in their home rule proposals.

Some of the most innovative and potentially impactful proposals would not be able to be enacted by any city.

Even for cities that have been in the program for a number of years, there remains important ordinances they are still working to pass at the local level. It often takes cities multiple years to get all of their home rule ordinances enacted, and the vast majority of municipalities have only been in the home rule program for a year (24 out of 28).

If HB 2913 were passed, some of the most innovative and potentially impactful proposals to address vacant properties would not be able to be enacted by any city (because they haven’t yet been enacted by home rule cities). They would have to go back to being taken through the statewide legislative process for adoption by the city, certainly a step back for municipal authority to be creative and responsive to the specific needs in each of the cities.

Stephanie-Tyree

With Nothing to Lose But Blight, Legislature Considers Creative Solutions to Abandoned Buildings Crisis

Photo by Mark Plummer/FlickrCC

Photo by Mark Plummer/FlickrCC

Identifying creative and effective ways to address the growing problem of blight and vacant and dilapidated properties continues to be a priority for legislators in both chambers, and on both sides of the aisle.

Multiple bills are making their way through the Legislature which could have an impact on city and county authority to do something about dilapidated properties. Here’s three that we’re keeping an eye on.

 

Giving Land Banks Right of First Refusal

Those of you who follow dilapidated property legislation closely will remember the bill that passed in 2014 (SB 579) allowing for the creation of land banks in West Virginia, modeled after the land bank in Huntington. The legislation titled them “land reuse agencies,” but, in other areas, they are often called “land banks.”

A delegation of Cabell County delegates are back this year with a proposal – HB 4390 to expand the authority of land banks to provide them with the “right of first refusal.”

The impact on dilapidated property will be well worth the work if they can make it happen.

This is an idea that has been advocated for by the Huntington Urban Renewal Authority (HURA) land bank for a number of years. If passed, it would have significant benefits for HURA and would remove one of the major barriers that has prevented other communities from creating similar land banks.

Giving a land bank right of first refusal means that the land bank gets to look over properties that are up for sheriff’s tax sale before the public, and the first option to purchase any property before it goes to public sale.

Right of first refusal is used in land banks in a number of states, most notably and successfully in the Michigan Land Bank Fast Track Authority. Properties still go through the normal tax sale process and the land bank still has to purchase the properties, but the land bank has the authority to look over the list and purchase properties first.

It will not be easy to get this bill passed. Much education and advocacy will be needed by dilapidated property advocates and stakeholders to help legislators understand the importance of creating a first right of refusal for land banks.

But the impact on dilapidated property will be well worth the work if they can make it happen. If you are passionate about dilapidated properties and want to get involved in land bank advocacy, let us know – we’ll plug you in.

 

Photo by Jess J/FlickrCC

Photo by Jess J/FlickrCC

Homesteading: In the pipeline for introduction this week

A bipartisan group of delegates from Fayette and Kanawha counties have come together to introduce legislation to create a homesteading pilot program for West Virginia.

(If you want some background on the concept, check out our story on the idea of homesteading in the Legislative Hubbub we ran before the session started.)

In short, it is a community development financing program that provides attractive financing options to certain purchasers for inhabiting and rehabilitating dilapidated property. Often the program is limited to a certain neighborhood or specific geographic area, and is sometimes targeted to a specific group of people (often artists).

Providing attractive financing options to certain purchasers for inhabiting and rehabilitating dilapidated property.

The proposed bill would create a statewide pilot project within the Development Office. It would start by focusing on five municipalities with significant dilapidated property challenges, and would require the Development Office to support bank financing for homesteading of these properties through grants from the Development Office Promotion Fund (in addition to other grant and donation sources that are permitted to be accepted).

The coordination of this cross-county coalition points to an interest of the delegates in possibly focusing a homesteading project in the town that the two counties share, and that is under current significant distress: Montgomery.

Homesteading has been implemented with success in at least 10 other states. It would be exciting to see such an innovative program take off to support struggling West Virginia communities. We’ll keep you in the loop about the progress of this bill once it’s introduced.

Stephanie-Tyree

Paying It Forward: Energy Efficiency Bill Uses Future Savings to Fund Building Upgrades

Photo by USDA

Photo by USDA

The Local Energy Efficiency Partnership (LEEP) Act has been re-introduced this year, and is in a much stronger position to pass.

LEEP is a funding mechanism that local governments can establish to empower commercial building owners to use private finance to improve building efficiency, paying for the upgrades on the building owner’s tax ticket. Currently, 30 states have similar laws in place.

Leveraging private finance to improve building efficiency.

Here’s how it works. The process begins with an investment-grade energy audit by a specialized company called an Energy Service Company (ESCO) that has expertise in providing, and guaranteeing, energy savings.

After getting the audit, the ESCO identifies the changes to the building that will pay for themselves through energy savings.

For example, an ESCO may recommend upgrading specific lighting fixtures, plugging air leaks or upgrading a furnace. The building owner picks which upgrades it wants to make, based on how long it will take for the upgrades to pay for themselves, and sends the audit, with an application, to the local government.

The government turns the application into a bond for sale on the bond market. The bonds are backed by the energy savings, not by the government itself. Once a private buyer is found for the bonds, the changes can be made and repaid by the building owner with a monthly payment lower than the monthly savings.

The government turns the application into a bond for sale on the bond market. The bonds are backed by the energy savings…

Last year around this time, we were still working out the details of the bill with experts at the WVU College of Law. This year we have hit the ground running with SB 370, thanks to our Senate sponsors, Senators Walters (R, Putnam) and Miller (D, Greenbrier).

The LEEP Act has been submitted by Delegates Hanshaw (R, Clay) and Fleischauer (D, Monongalia), and will likely be introduced any day now.

We are hoping to get the Senate bill start moving and be considered by the Energy, Industry, and Mining Committee. Please send an email to the committee members and ask them that you support the LEEP Act. Here are some things to add to your email:

  • The LEEP Act helps businesses stay in the state by reducing costs and improving their building value.
  • The LEEP Act makes it easier for private capital to help create local construction jobs making building improvements.
  • As an opt-in program for local governments, the LEEP Act gives local governments the choice as to whether to use this tool for improving their building stock.

Here are the email addresses of the committee members, including Chairman Greg Boso, to let them know you support SB 370 and would like to see it approved by the Energy, Industry, and Mining Committee!


Emmett-Pepper

Legislature Ponders Small But Significant Step Toward Gender Equality

Photo by WVU

Photo by WVU

Three bills caught our attention this week, and they are a perfect example of the mix of issues we pay attention to here at The Hub:

  • The impact on communities of economic decline and large institutions leaving (like WVU Tech);
  • The impact and importance of equality, diversity and building the type of communities that attract and retain residents (equal pay); and
  • Continuing to grow our craft brew economy (through growler samples).

 

Moving WVU Tech: The Red Tape

Much of the drama around WVU Tech and its main campus in Montgomery (on the border of Kanawha and Fayette counties) has played out in the newspapers over the last year.

The tl;dr version of the story is that the facilities at WVU Tech had fallen into disrepair (and there wasn’t adequate funding to improve them), and its student population was on the decline.

In the summer of 2015, WVU purchased the former campus of Mountain State University in Beckley. Three months later it announced that it was moving the Tech campus from Montgomery (a town of less than 2,000 people) to Beckley (with a population of more than 17,000), starting fall 2017.

There have been a number of hoops that the university has had to jump through in order to make this major change, including the current priority it has to change the portion of WV Code that requires WVU Tech to be located in Montgomery.

SB 386 and HB 4310, both introduced by Raleigh County legislators, would amend that section of code to eliminate the requirement that Tech be located in Beckley, and eliminate the statutory requirement to have a WVU Tech Revitalization Project.

It recognizes that multiple studies have found that the facilities are in disrepair and would need a significant increase in the student body, and in state funding, to address the repairs. And it recognizes that a collaboration is in place between the southern West Virginia colleges of WVU, WVU Tech, Marshall, Bluefield State, and Concord University and encourages that continued collaboration.

The bills are currently before both Education Committees and have yet to be taken up on either side.

It will remain to be seen how Montgomery finds a way to survive and thrive in the face of the significant impact of WVU Tech leaving the community. Ways that the state can step up and support that community are under consideration by legislators in both Chambers. We’ll keep watching to see what ideas they come up with.

 

women

Photo by COD Newsroom/FlickrCC

Legislature Considers Step Toward Gender Equality

In West Virginia, women earn, on average, 69 percent of what their male counterparts earn.

This is a 10 percent greater gap than Ohio, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Virginia. If women were really motivated by this wage gap, they’d probably be moving to Maryland, where women make 85 percent of what men make – quite a bit better than the national average of 78 percent.

The House and Senate have both introduced bills to try to start addressing this wage gap. The Equal Pay Act of 2016 would be the first step towards starting the process of moving West Virginia towards equal pay for women and men.

The proposed bills – HB 4328; SB 471 and 477 – don’t require equal pay for both genders. Instead they merely prohibit employers from restricting employee discussion about compensation, benefits and other wages.

These bills would make it a discriminatory act for an employer to restrict employees from talking about these activities, or require employees to sign waivers saying they won’t share information about their wages with other people.

Opening up the process so that employees can share information on their wages is the first step towards moving to a more equal pay scale between the genders.

The Senate bills are identical, and have slightly different Democratic sponsors. Both bills have been double referenced and we’d be surprised to see them move out of their committee assignments.

The House bill is the one to watch. A bi-partisan bill sponsored by Delegate Erikka Storch, it has seven female co-sponsors, along with a couple of male co-sponsors thrown in for good measure.

We’re curious about why the rest of the womens’ caucus did not sign on to the bill – 10 women delegates, both Republicans and Democrats, are not listed as co-sponsors.

 

Try Before You Buy: Growler Samples

bridge

Photo by Bridge Brew Works

No one will ever look back on the 82nd Legislature and question Senator Chris Walters commitment to expanding the craft brewery industry in West Virginia. And he’s back again with another (good) bill – SB 478 – allowing for sampling beers at places that sell growlers.

For those of you who frequent places that sell local brews, this is a pretty self-explanatory bill. It basically allows for patrons to try small samples of different beers (2 ounces or less) before purchasing a growler.

But no one can go crazy on samples – licensees can only provide three samples per person, and they’ll check your ID before they do that.

Here’s a real world example: Drug Emporium has recently opened growler bars in some of its locations. If this bill were passed, you would be able to try a few beers before settling on which growler to buy, even though Drug Emporium is not a bar or restaurant where you can drink openly.

There was a lot of support last year for craft brewing bills. Senator Walters has got six bills relating to craft brewing and the beverage industry introduced under his name this year. We’ll have to wait and see which – if any – get through the process.

Stephanie-Tyree