- Associated Press - Thursday, August 31, 2017

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) - Plastics and chemical manufacturing, cybersecurity, higher-end tourism and automotive assembly are sectors where the state can turn its lagging economy around, according to West Virginia’s state university and commerce officials.

In an address Thursday to business leaders at the Greenbrier Resort, West Virginia University President Gordon Gee said he and other officials had collaborated to produce a roadmap for growth and to identify sectors to diversify the economy.

The state has been hurt by sharp declines in coal production and employment the past several years, despite an uptick this year. While Gee acknowledged coal, his emphasis for the state’s future was on other sectors. He highlighted the state’s natural gas reserves, as well as work underway toward establishing a gas storage hub.

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“West Virginia has many robust industries that we can grow such as aerospace maintenance, automotive parts manufacturing and metals manufacturing,” he said. “And of course we will continue to support efforts to support our rebounding coal industry.”

“The state also has sectors that are growing more slowly here than nationally, but where we can succeed is by differentiating ourselves from the competition,” Gee said. “One area is downstream oil and gas manufacturing, specifically in carbon-fiber-reinforced plastics and fine chemicals.”

Other areas identified Thursday for future growth included computer cloud services and data centers and life sciences.

A full report is expected by mid-September. It follows a study conducted by McKinsey & Co., a global management consultant, commissioned by WVU, Marshall University and the state Commerce Department. The effort was funded by private donors and foundations, Gee said.

The joint initiative is called West Virginia Forward. Its WVU website also acknowledges the state’s major assets in health care and energy. “But we need to know what business sectors are most likely to grow in the coming years and then determine if we have the right attributes to attract them here,” the website says.

Marshall University President Jerome Gilbert said those involved with the initiative are excited about the opportunity “to bring university and state resources to the table to attract manufacturing, small businesses and high-tech industry to our state.”

Secretary of Commerce Woody Thrasher said West Virginia Forward has the potential for lasting impact, and the universities are crucial for attracting new opportunities and educating and retaining a talented workforce.

Officials are advocating several steps to improve the business climate, including improving roads, bridges and access to broadband and clean water; cutting the tax on business inventories; lowering the cost of industrial electricity; creating incentives for business development; partnering with the universities for small business legal advice and financial forecasting; expanding vocational training and improving the health of the work force.

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