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MAP TO PROSPERITY: WV's dilemma - Are we rural or urban?

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Brooks McCabe Brooks McCabe
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  • Map to Prosperity

    Map to Prosperity

    Thursday, January 2 2014 11:59 AM EST2014-01-02 16:59:08 GMT
    "Map to Prosperity" is a long-term project of The State Journal that will deeply examine government and business in West Virginia — both the perceptions and the reality.
    "Map to Prosperity" is a long-term project of The State Journal that will deeply examine government and business in West Virginia — both the perceptions and the reality.

Sen. Brooks McCabe, D-Kanawha, is managing member and broker of West Virginia Commercial LLC. He has been involved in commercial and investment real estate for more than 30 years, and he also is general partner of McCabe Land Company LP. He has served in the West Virginia Senate since 1998, and is a special project consultant to The State Journal.

From a global perspective, more people now live in urban areas than in rural areas. It has been estimated that by 2050, three-quarters of the world's population will live and work in urban areas. 

In West Virginia, almost three-quarters of the population live outside of a city, town or village. West Virginia is a rural state and has much with which to be proud. 

The problem is that the state, in many ways, is swimming upstream trying to preserve a way of life without accepting the inherent costs associated with a highly dispersed population expecting many of the services and amenities of more urban areas. Whether it be health care, public education, roads, water and sewer, or fire protection, many of West Virginia's rural areas want public services but are hesitant to pay the real costs associated with such services. 

Many people choose to live in unincorporated areas for lifestyle reasons or to avoid taxes and service fees. In the future, it will cost more for those services, or there will be fewer services available. This, unfortunately, is the new economics of a global economy. West Virginia is no longer an island unto itself. 

The top 100 metropolitan areas in the United States consume about 12 percent of the land area in the country, yet two-thirds of the population while accounting for 75 percent of the gross domestic product. The urban areas drive the economy and represent the economic engine for growth and development. This is true globally as well as in West Virginia.

According to the West Virginia Municipal League, Mountain State cities have captured most of the state's new jobs in recent years. Of the 88,600 non-farm payroll jobs added to the West Virginia economy between 1987 and 1995, more than three-quarters have appeared in urban sections where the rate of job growth was 16.3 percent.

Historically in West Virginia the dichotomy of urban vs. rural has been weighted heavily to the rural side of the equation. This has been detrimental to the growth of West Virginia's cities. Only one city has more than 50,000 residents and only three additional cities have more than 30,000. Just seven of 55 counties have more people living in the incorporated areas than in the unincorporated areas. If West Virginia truly wants to grow its economy and compete nationally and globally, it must free its cities from the shackles of a rural-dominated mindset. 

This does not mean the rural areas of the state need to give up their quality of life. It means their expectations need to be balanced with the dictates of the economics of the changing world. It is unreasonable to expect subsidized services from the urban areas when they are straining under the costs of providing public services with aging infrastructure.  

The "Map to Prosperity" in West Virginia is through its urban areas. The leadership coming to the forefront in West Virginia is not from Washington, the statehouse or county government. It is from the cities. Whether it be Beckley, Bridgeport, Charleston, Huntington, Lewisburg, Martinsburg, Morgantown, Parkersburg or Wheeling, the real leadership is rising from our cities, their mayors and their city councils.  

State government in West Virginia often is oriented to the short term. With elections every two years, the time horizon is "my term," not the "long term." In times of crisis this has not been the case in West Virginia. But if Rome is not burning, the Legislature tends to be very cautious and lets the political winds of the day drive the decision-making process. This is not necessarily a bad thing, since in a democracy the will of the people is supreme. However when the world is changing faster than the communities around you, leadership becomes more important. 

West Virginia is like a frog in a pan of water slowly being heated. In the short term all might seem well. Only when the temperature has risen to the point of no return does the frog sense something is wrong. The rural communities are fighting a battle to remain as they have always been. What has not been realized is that their only chance of real success is proactively pursing rural by design. They need to redesign their future so they can in fact remain rural in an ever-changing world. So far the battle has been focused on avoiding taxes and service fees, maintaining urban subsidies and to splitting precious resources relatively equally among 55 counties. The governor and the Legislature seem to be taking a path of least resistance and going along for the ride.  

In West Virginia the new leadership is beginning to emanate from the cities, not the state or federal government. Home rule legislation has provided a needed spark. The mayors, their city managers and city councils are putting the interests of their cities over partisan politics. They are looking at the long term, not the near term. They are relying on collaboration rather than conflict. Righteous indignation and conflict are being replaced by problem solving and time on task. The cities are beginning to realize that they need to solve their own problems and not wait for the federal or state government to bail them out. 

It's not that federal and state funds are not vitally needed, but that program efficiencies and new ways of looking at the world are becoming their opportunities while the politics of old are still being battled out in Washington. Cities cannot afford to lose every other year because it is an election year. 

The issue is not one of urban vs. rural, or even federal and state government vs. metropolitan governance; rather, it is an issue of leaving ideology behind and recognizing from where growth and development truly emanate. Like it or not, the engines of tomorrow's economy will be in the urban areas. For those areas to succeed, they must take their destiny in their own hands. This is even truer in West Virginia with the Legislature's rural bias and proclivity for sharing resources across the board rather than concentrating on investments with the highest return. In the near term this may be the road less traveled, but it is the "Map to Prosperity." We must find ways to let our cities thrive and compete across state and regional boundaries. In many ways, West Virginia's urban areas are its future.