Gee Says West Virginia Forward Initiative Is Picking Up Steam
MORGANTOWN — West Virginia University President Gordon Gee said he believes the West Virginia Forward initiative is picking up momentum and on target for full development in four to five years.
West Virginia Forward is a multi-level effort to form partnerships and move all sectors of the state forward to reach goals for prosperity, health and education, according to WVU Provost Joyce McConnell.
“Our job is to reweave the fabric of the state in a way that allows us to be extremely successful,” said Gee, who offered the keynote talk Monday at the WVU Academic Media Day.
He said the initiative involves a very strong partnership between WVU, the state Department of Commerce and Marshall University.
“This is not about West Virginia University,” he said about the project’s collaborative nature. “This is about West Virginia.”
He envisions the state’s reinvention will take four to five years to keep moving.
“I think we’re picking up momentum,” said Gee. “We’ve done the homework; we have the data. I’m optimistic we’ll pick up the pace on this. We have to.”
Regarding legislation needed to move the state forward, Gee said a lot of conversation was started during this year’s legislative session. However, he said the statewide teachers’ strike — which occurred while the West Virginia Legislature was in session — “took all the oxygen out of any conversations.”
Conversation must be turned into action said Gee who also said West Virginia Forward leaders will revisit talks to get efforts back on track legislatively. Gee acknowledged that great ideas are “also a bit frightening” by changing ways of doing business and the status quo.
However, he said, “I think we’re in a very strong position.”
Gee said that a non-election year, such as 2019, provides “our window of opportunity” to achieve legislative action on various issues.
“We want to take a look at where we have comparative advantages” over other states, rather than racing to the bottom, said Gee about work being undertaken through West Virginia Forward. Gee assailed the “negative elitism” of some West Virginians who he said seem to be proud of being misunderstood and feeling downtrodden.
Offering a more positive perspective, Gee said, “We have so many remarkable assets.”
Among those assets, he cited the state’s high quality of life, “quite remarkable” workforce, “great opportunities” provided by the Ohio River and its location within driving distance of two-thirds of the American public. In addition, he said the state holds the nation’s largest amount of energy resources.
Participants in West Virginia Forward are identifying “a number of strengths that can be turned into economic opportunities almost immediately,” he said.
Meanwhile, California has supplanted West Virginia in one survey as the nation’s worst place to do business, he said. The Mountain State now ranks 15th in the country in terms of quality of life and places to do business.
Saying that “courage comes from people coming together,” Gee thinks West Virginia can achieve an economic renaissance.
He used the Boy Scouts of America’s decision to build its $1 billion recreational facility in southern West Virginia as an example to illustrate the assets that the state offers. Three main factors that influenced Boy Scout leaders were the immediate availability of 14,000 acres of reclaimed land, quick decision making and “the quality of our people,” he said.
However, he said additional education is needed to train people for jobs that will be available in the state.
Gee also said he believes that educational reform and health reform are necessary components for reinvention.
“Health care is the tent pole,” he said. “We cannot have an economically viable state that is not focused on health.”