I've been involved in community and economic development in the Mid-Ohio Valley for more than 40 years and I've taught economics at West Virginia University-Parkersburg for 21 years. With an unemployment rate of somewhere between 8 and 9 percent, I guess you could say I'm part of the problem; more likely, you could say I haven't been part of the solution.
With this stab at humility, I'd like to suggest some of the reasons that our potential has been pursued but not realized and in future efforts suggest what we collectively might do about it.
I'll begin with a bit of conjecture. I attended a meeting the other day during which an area mayor, (not from Washington County) suggested that, perhaps, we do not want to progress or compete in this strange new global market place. Maybe, just maybe, we are satisfied with our lower cost of living, comparative security and bucolic environment. After all, this is what we promote when we try to attract visitors and investors to our area. Maybe we should be satisfied with what we have and if outliers don't take to us, then they can just go elsewhere.
The problem with the status quo is that it doesn't exist. Just like equilibrium in economics is an elusive concept. To stand still and be complacent is to fall behind, both in absolute and relative terms. Doing nothing still has costs (in economics we call them opportunity costs). And, while we are patting ourselves on the back with our contribution to what is our quality of life, the rest of the world is employing its resources to move onward and upward.
I guess it is human nature, but we don't cotton too well to those who sit around and fail to use their God given abilities. Communities are like that too. Those who sit back complacently can take a permanent backseat. Biblically, it's called hiding our light under a basket.
Let's assume, for a minute, that more people than not want to do something to change the way we do things. Maybe we want to keep our kids, grandkids and great-grandkids closer to home. Maybe we don't want to wait for the good things in life to be handed to us. Maybe there is a majority who don't want to take the easy way and do nothing; who think that we can have our traditions and still explore the future; who realize that life is not a zero sum game.
For now, I'm not going to dwell on the evolution of our economy; but, I will touch on our roots in agriculture and natural resources; our dependence on the rivers and creeks which drain our countryside and urban landscapes (admittedly, sometimes they are a bit rambunctious in playing their roles); the innate creative, innovative and entrepreneurial culture with which we have been endowed; and the heritage of toleration and inclusiveness which defines us.
I will, however, mention three structural issues which I suggest may be obstacles to our economic prosperity and an enabler of our economic insensitivity. I'll couch my thoughts in the reality that we are part, and perhaps an integral part, of a dynamic, interdependent and complex international economy. There are many things over which we have little, or no, control. Need I mention oil prices?
Let's look at three daunting, but mitigable, structural obstacles. The first is an economic development icon: critical mass. We don't have it. I tell my students at WVU-P that it's the difference between Wal-Mart and Target. They can wrap their brains around that. We need a more favorable demographic. In short, we need people with incomes. In the early 1950s, we were the can't miss region. We never got there, wherever there is. We stood still; others didn't.
The second roadblock is isolation. Our comfortable little metropolitan, statistical area is a fer piece from real critical masses. We are peripheral to where it's happening. My kids (students) harp on "there's nothin' to do." What they imply is "there's no future." We have trouble generating jobs; we get jobs by way of outsourcing from other larger metros that expel employment to our highly productive and lower paid workers.
Lastly, we have the double whammy of geography; a location across from very aggressive, Katie-bar-the-door West Virginia; and within a state which describes much of eastern and southeastern Ohio by sarcasm: "can't get there from here" or "out of sight, out of mind."
Terry Tamburini is executive director of the Southeastern Ohio Port Authority.