By Stephen Smoot
At the last meeting of the Region 8 Planning and Economic Development Council, the assembled group approved an update of the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (or CEDS) to be sent to the Governor’s desk. This nearly hundred-page document, accessible online, outlines economic development in the Potomac Highlands in the past, present, and future with an eye toward identifying and overcoming challenges.
The document contains vital information, including an inventory of regional assets and a strategic evaluation of economic development potential. For example, it details the growth of oil, coal, and natural gas extraction as slow compared to the remainder of the state. It also describes the growth of wind energy production in Grant and Mineral counties, but reports that “sponsors” have abandoned “a proposed project in Pendleton County that encountered substantial public resistance.”
Also, the report examined housing. Of all the incorporated municipalities in the region, Franklin had the lowest percentage of housing constructed before 1939, approximately 21 percent. At a recent Region 8 meeting, members raised concerns that housing at all economic levels is currently in a shortage and cannot currently meet the needs of economic growth.
It should be noted that in recent years many of the older homes in Franklin have enjoyed modern restoration. This work not only has added good housing stock for the needs of higher end owners, it has also highlighted architectural gems on Franklin’s Main Street and elsewhere in town.
Additionally, the CEDS reports that the Pendleton County Economic Development Authority has invested strong effort into marketing “the county’s unique assets,” but does not include in its analysis the recent merger of Pendleton and Grant’s economic development offices.
The strategic evaluation section outlines challenges and opportunities. It shares that “recent economic uncertainty has created broad concern for the future.” The introduction, however, also states that “this concern is typical of recessionary times and reflects neither the Potomac Highlands’ potential nor the challenges it faces in reaching this potential.”
Region 8 identified three “economic clusters” that help to drive the regional and local economics. These include wood products, poultry products, and “defense related transportation equipment.” From this group, wood production faces the most economic elasticity. That means that wood is more sensitive to rises and falls in national and global economic fortunes because it is used in products that people tend to purchase less of in hard times.
Although not included in the report, defense industries north of Keyser have seen stepped up hiring in recent years. The Russo-Ukraine War likely has helped to drive production of munitions and related products at Northrop Grumman’s Rocket Center facility.
The report recommends that the region work on several challenges and obstacles to pave the way for growth in the region, especially in and near the larger municipalities of the area. These include expanding broadband and less powerful, but still usable internet access, developing and improving highways, supporting entrepreneurship, “locating utilities to promote sound land use development,” using cleaned up brownfield sites for development, adding enterprise park acreage, “adopting land use management tools,” and adding education opportunities.
Action at the federal, state, and local level in the past year has given communities tools to work on these issues. Last month, Senators Manchin and Capito announced funding for the restoration of brownfields sites, which are former industrial areas that have significant soil contamination.
Additionally, the Pendleton County Economic Development Authority, with support of the Pendleton County Commission, the Pendleton County Board of Education, Pendleton County Library, Shentel, Spruce Knob Seneca Rocks Telephone, and other entities, has worked to expand broadband and internet access through participation in a number of programs.
Pendleton County has also worked to develop supporting infrastructure for aspiring small business owners, especially those involved in value added agriculture and tourism, particularly the adventure style.
The CEDS conclusion states that “addressing these issues will allow the Potomac Highlands to maximize the development potential of its economic growth clusters and centers by removing obstructions to growth while creating an atmosphere where entrepreneurs and individuals can succeed.”