CHARLESTON – Just down the road the state Capitol in Boone and Lincoln counties lies something unique and promising in Southern West Virginia – approximately 12,000 acres of flat land ideal for new businesses and with the potential for a level of job creation that would be a game changer for our state.
Early this year, I announced plans to turn this former mine site into what I believe could be an economic epicenter for West Virginia. This is a bold, "blue sky" proposal unlike anything we have seen in our state previously – and today, I stand just as firmly behind this public-private plan and the potential it holds.
Over the past eight months, I have worked closely with Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette and his team at the Development Office, a wide cross-section of state agencies, Marshall University and West Virginia University, local officials, landowners and many others to begin paving the way for the largest industrial site in West Virginia history at the former Hobet surface mine.
We have been moving quickly.
We recently submitted a technical assistance grant application to the Appalachian Regional Commission through its POWER initiative. If awarded, this money would allow us to develop a detailed economic assessment and strategic plan for the best use of the site – a critical step toward making the land usable for business and industry.
In addition, the Division of Highways is working with potential contractors on plans for a 2.6-mile road that will open up access to the site. We are confident the cost of the road could be largely – and maybe even fully – covered by federal funds. In fact, by 2020, the new Federal Highway Bill will increase the amount of federal dollars for West Virginia's highways by $204 million compared to the amount we received last year – and I thank our congressional delegation for their support of this legislation.
We also are looking at an innovative approach to funding for the roadway through bonds that are secured by future federal highway funds – which would even further minimize any potential impact on our state highway fund.
This is an investment in the future of Southern West Virginia, and I believe the returns will vastly exceed it.
While we plan for the road construction, Marshall University has completed an initial round of mapping to identify prospective sites for industrial development. This has allowed us to outline strategic phases for the project - phases that visualize dozens of industrial, recreational and commercial plots of land.
We also continue working with local landowners to secure needed land titles for developable acreage. Quite simply, this project will not be possible without them - and I appreciate their collaboration.
If we succeed in this project – and I believe we must – we will be seizing an opportunity to revitalize Southern West Virginia by creating targeted economic restructuring in areas hardest hit by the downturn in the coal industry. Moreover, we will be doing so in an area that has an available workforce of more than 400,000 people, many of whom are highly skilled and unemployed or underemployed.
We all know what has happened in Southern West Virginia with the loss of thousands of coal-related jobs. And we have all seen the impact of these drastic changes on families, on our economy and on our state budget. Without a source of new jobs in this region of our state, hardworking West Virginians will pack up and leave. They will have no other choice.
We owe it to each and every West Virginian impacted by the decline of the coal industry to realize the full potential of the Hobet project. I believe this is the best, most promising way forward to ensure Southern West Virginia is a place where people want to work, a place they are proud to call home – a place where they can stay and support their families because new economic opportunities are flourishing.
Tomblin is governor of West Virginia.