WEIRTON — Ben Salango believes different approaches are needed for each area of the state when it comes to economic development, and that more is needed to repair a feeling of disconnect between West Virginia’s residents and Charleston.
Salango, a Kanawha County commissioner and the Democratic candidate for governor, was in Weirton Monday, meeting with area legislators and manufacturing representatives at the USW Local 2911 Hall to unveil his new Regional Economic Development Plan.
One of the main tenets of the plan is a regional approach, leveraging the opportunities of each portion of the state to promote growth, instead of using a one-size-fits-all method.
Salango explained this is in response to comments from people in the Northern Panhandle, and other areas of the state, who believe the Governor’s Office and state officials have neglected the region.
“I had heard so many times that people feel forgotten up here,” Salango said. “I’ve heard it all over the state.”
Five areas of focus for the Northern Panhandle under the plan would include establishing vocational and technical schools, developing the Frontier industrial site in Weirton, taking advantage of the cracker facility currently under construction in Monaca, Pa., building the proposed Brooke County Power Plant and leveraging natural gas and petrochemical opportunities.
The Mid-Ohio Valley, meanwhile, would focus on the auto industry, petro-chemical development and U.S. Treasury operations; the Metro Valley on aerospace, advanced manufacturing, technology and work through Marshall University; and southern West Virginia on tourism, rare earth elements, forest products development, and development of the Hobet mine site.
In north central West Virginia, the focus would be on work with West Virginia University, federal agencies, cyber/tech industry, aerospace and healthcare; the Eastern Panhandle would include sports tourism, expanded MARC train services, telework options and air/ground freight opportunities; and the Potomac Highlands would feature tourism, forest products, co-working space for remote employees, the completion of Corridor H and growth in the defense and tech industries.
All areas of West Virginia would see work to expand broadband access, upgrade infrastructure, support for small business and workforce development, and efforts to increase site development for economic opportunities.
Salango wants to further regionalize operations with the state’s Commerce Department by establishing representatives of the department in each area of the state.
“You’re going to have a go-to person,” Salango said, explaining he has heard of municipal officials and representatives of development agencies receiving little response from Commerce staff on potential projects. “It will give you direct access to the Commerce Department.”
The plan also includes provisions for rural healthcare and comprehensive inpatient treatment for those with opioid dependence.
“All the states around us are growing and West Virginia is lagging behind,” Salango said.
Mark Glyptis, president of USW 2911, noted the Weirton plant of ArcelorMittal, currently in the process of being purchased by Cleveland-Cliffs, is one of only two remaining domestic tin producers. He feels with proper support, the tin mill will have a bright future.
“The opportunities are out there if we have the right leadership,” Glyptis said.
State Sen. Bill Ihlenfeld, D-Wheeling, said he believes Salango will provide transparency to the Governor’s Office, and a willingness to work with everyone, no matter their political affiliation. Citing the proposed natural gas power plant in Brooke County, Ihlenfeld said Gov. Jim Justice has been hesitant to support the project, despite the possibility of job creation and millions of dollars in investment for the state.
“If we don’t grab a hold of that now, it’s a tremendous opportunity lost,” Ihlenfeld said.
Del. Phil Diserio, D-Brooke, noted the efforts of existing groups, such as the Business Development Corp. of the Northern Panhandle, to remediate brownfield sites in the area and prepare them for economic development.
“We’ve had groups up here working hard to clean these places up,” he said, noting it just needs support from Charleston. “They’re ready to go.”
Del. Randy Swartzmiller, D-Hancock, who is running for state Senate, said he, too, feels Salango will provide the needed leadership for the Northern Panhandle and all of West Virginia.
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