A column by Patrick Farrell
Many of West Virginia’s lawmakers claim they’re doing everything within their power to drive business and create jobs. I know they can do more. There are straightforward steps our elected officials can take to encourage entrepreneurship and help grow small businesses.
Lawmakers need to focus on the people, places and policies that can drive our economy.
Economic growth starts with people. Specifically, we need to do everything we can to attract and retain talented entrepreneurs. The entrepreneurs we want are as optimistic as they are determined. They’re creative enough to find a way to provide a good or service better, faster or cheaper than anyone else. Most importantly, they look at the challenges around us and see opportunities.
Wherever people like this go, success follows. We need more entrepreneurs, and we can do more to attract them. Talented people want to live in great places. West Virginia is wild and wonderful, but it is not a great place for entrepreneurs, which is why by most objective measures we rank last in startup activity.
Creating a business-friendly environment for entrepreneurs and growing industries is not rocket science, and it doesn’t require guesswork. Amazon recently provided a blueprint for just such a place when they released criteria they are using to select a location for their new headquarters.
The first thing Amazon made clear is that fiber connectivity is paramount. Broadband access and overlapping cell phone coverage aren’t just desired — they are required. Without them, West Virginia isn’t even in the conversation. We’ve made progress on this in recent years, but the progress is too small and not happening fast enough.
Connectivity is also important in another context. Amazon said it is looking for places that are pedestrian-friendly, have good public transportation options and offer easy access to an international airport. By and large, we lack the first two criteria, and instead of working toward building a new airport, officials in Kanawha and Cabell counties continue to pour money into two inadequate airports. The two counties are clinging tightly to what is theirs instead of looking at the possibility of what more could be ours.
Companies like Amazon are also looking for places that prioritize environmental sustainability. They want buildings made with locally sourced materials that have open spaces and energy-efficient lighting. They want to see a commitment to using resources wisely. Instead of working in this direction, our politicians struggle to keep our air and water clean while at the same time choosing not to fund recycling programs.
Lastly, we need to adopt a growth mindset. There are simple, clear-cut policies we can put in place to support talented people, create better spaces for them and help small businesses grow.
First, talented entrepreneurs are typically open-minded and smart, and they want to be around other open-minded and smart people. Our Legislature can take a step toward welcoming entrepreneurs by amending the state human rights code to include sexual orientation as a protected class. As the law is written today, we protect people against violence based on race, color, religion, sex, ancestry, national origin, political affiliation and disability, but not sexual orientation.
Our legislators are willing to impose the toughest penalties while seeking justice for someone who gets beaten up for being a Democrat or Republican but not for someone punched in the face for being gay. That’s shameful, embarrassing and unacceptable.
We can also make policy decisions to invest in physical environment by funding recycling programs, building a regional airport in Putnam County and improving our city-planning efforts to include more green spaces.
Where would the funding come from? The Legislature can create financial incentives for counties to consolidate or form metro governments. We no longer need 55 counties, and we don’t need the overhead costs of maintaining both municipal governments and county governments. The longer we refuse to confront this problem, the longer it will take for us to invest in the things that will help us grow.
Consolidation is one long-term answer to our needs. There are also less contentious policy changes that help small businesses grow. For example, we could finally eliminate the tangible personal property tax and stop being one of only 10 remaining states that penalizes businesses for investing in machinery, equipment and inventory.
We can create a certification program for development sites around the state that would allow West Virginia to invest in site readiness and build the appropriate infrastructure needed to effectively compete for projects (like Amazon’s new headquarters) that require large tracts of land.
Moving an economy forward takes effort and long-term planning. It’s not easy, but it is possible. It’s time for our political leaders to end the partisan bickering and focus instead on small businesses and fostering an entrepreneurial culture.
Let’s approach our challenges as opportunities. Let’s start attracting and retaining talented people, creating great places and adopting entrepreneur-friendly policies that can help build our economy.