State's Trip Back to the Future

W. Virginia governor touts high-tech solutions - 40 years after first term

When Cecil Underwood was last governor of West Virginia, the cold war was at its height, Eisenhower was president, and neither the microchip nor manned space flight had come to pass. Today, 40 years later, Mr. Underwood takes the oath office for his second term as governor.

Much has happened in those intervening four decades. Most important, West Virginia stands its best chance in years to capitalize on a newly bolstered education system and a more diversified economy.

Says outgoing Gov. Gaston Caperton: "If there's really one marked change in every part of our state, it's that our people have found a renewed sense of hope and pride and that we can be whatever we want to be.... I think West Virginia is [the] strongest it has ever been in its history."

In fact, as the new governor assumes office, he enjoys the advantage of relatively good economic times. Growth in the state's economy outpaced the nation during the first half of this decade. Joblessness is the lowest it has been in 20 years. Because of sustained investment, West Virginia may be the first state in the nation to have a computer in every classroom.

"It's the best five-year stretch the state has seen since the early '70s," says George Hammond, research assistant professor at West Virginia University's Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

But the growth has been uneven. While portions of the state - such as the eastern panhandle closest to Washington, and Charleston, the state capital - have grown strongly, mountainous rural counties in the state's midsection and along its border with Kentucky continue to suffer double-digit unemployment. Coal mining, which used to employ thousands of rural West Virginians, has become much more efficient. In 1977, 1 in 10 employed West Virginians worked the mines; by last year, the figure was 1 in 25.

Moreover, the state is still poor. Although West Virginians are edging closer to the national average in per capita personal income, they still rank 49th out of the 50 states. Mr. Hammond expects the state's growth to slow for the second half of the decade.

Thus, Governor Underwood can find room for improvement, and no one is certain what he will do. A Republican in a thoroughly Democratic state, Underwood won 52 percent of the vote by emphasizing high technology and running on a platform of continuing the current growth policies of Mr. Caperton (a Democrat, who was barred from running for a third term). But his campaign was short on specifics.

A new governor should pick three major initiatives and concentrate on them, says Robert Dilger, a political scientist at West Virginia University in Morgantown. But "the interesting thing about Underwood is, I don't think that anybody, including Underwood, knows what those two or three things are.".

Major issues include whether to build a large airport (the state currently has none) and what access logging companies should have to national forests within the state. The major challenge, however, is likely to be keeping the state's progress on track.

The state has seen strong growth squashed before. During the early 1970s, the international oil shock sent coal prices - and the state's fortunes - soaring. But prices were unsustainably high, and fickle growth was followed by a knockout blow in the late '70s, when mining and manufacturing went into a tailspin. Between 1979 and 1983, the state lost 12 percent of its population as residents fled to find work elsewhere. Unemployment soared, averaging 18 percent in 1983.

This time, the state's economy is more diversified. Manufacturing's decline has been offset by the growth in service jobs. "The major thing that's changed for West Virginia in the 1990s is that we're much more similar to the nation," Hammond says.

Partly, the growth in service jobs comes courtesy of the federal government. As head of the US Senate appropriations committee, Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia has maneuvered an estimated $1 billion worth of major federal facilities to his state. These include an FBI fingerprinting facility in Clarksburg, a NASA software center in Fairmont, and a National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health building in Morgantown.

Governor Caperton also gets kudos for putting the state's finances on solid footing and spending on basic infrastructure, including paving 12,000 miles of roads and using $800 million to build schools. This, in turn, has attracted outside investors, most notably Toyota, which next year plans to open an engine factory near Charleston, employing 300 people.

Many in the state say it's up to Underwood to maintain the momentum. That way, Hammond says, "we'll stop being everybody's anecdote for economic disaster."

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