By Stephen Smoot
President Calvin Coolidge famously said that the “business of America is business.” While some may debate that a century after his administration, it is certainly true of the Harrison County Economic Development Corporation.
The EDC is led by Amy Haberbosch-Wilson, executive director, and a board composed of local elected leaders, economic development stakeholders, and individuals from the private sector. These include Mayor Rodney Strait of Shinnston, Harrison County Commissioner David Hinkle, Kathy Wagner, president of the Harrison County Chamber of Commerce, and Kylea Radcliff from The Thrasher Group.
Its mission is a simple one. The EDC “develops and advances the economic prosperity and economic welfare of Harrison County for the benefit of all citizens.”
To Haberbosch-Wilson, the mission from the beginning has boiled down to three words: retention, expansion, recruitment. Retain businesses in place. Help those who are willing and able to expand operations. Recruit new members of the Harrison County business community.
Even with those word as guidelines, she said in the EDC’s first efforts that those involved had to answer the question “what does that mean?” They concluded that meant that “we had to form our own goals.”
Almost any activity could be partly or fully included under the umbrella of the phrase “economic development,” which meant that an organization with limited resources of staff time and funds available must always make the most of what they have and target key priorities.
Haberbosch-Wilson explained that one of the priorities lay in not duplicating efforts from others. One example lays in the different purviews of the EDC and the Harrison County Chamber of Commerce. Chambers of Commerce focus on professional and business networking, as well as supporting the growth of the small business sector.
In some ways the missions overlap in that both have a mission to help to maintain existing businesses. How they do that is where the difference lies. An EDC looks at the business and the context of conditions in which it operates. Haberbosch-Wilson used the example of a locally owned grocery store with 15 to 20 employees.
If the store struggles, the EDC will investigate, asking “what are your issues? What do you need? How can we help?” Assistance can come in a variety of forms, including expanding opportunities to recruit a better workforce, working with local and state government on transportation issues, or reaching out to utility companies when appropriate.
Haberbosch-Wilson explained that the long term economic malaise that affected the state from the 1960s through the early 21st century shaped economic perceptions in West Virginia.
First, that meant that the state went after and accepted any development or investment available. No effort went into planning or organization because the business communities across the state had all lost so much and needed any infusion of activity.
For almost 15 years, however, the watchword in the state’s economy has been growth. Haberbosch-Wilson said that conditions have improved to the point that economic development officials can ask more specific questions, such as “what do we want here.”
Those efforts first lead to a policy that encourages competition without saturation. Haberbosch-Wilson used the example of pizza restaurants. A few in a town like Shinnston, she said, creates a healthy environment, but too many can overburden the market and push operators out of business.
“Now, we can be choosey,” she stated, adding that “I want to see more of the planned growth.”
She explained how those efforts are applied practically in terms of the North Central West Virginia Regional Airport, jointly operated by Harrison and Marion counties. The airport, which serves 22 counties, has an economic impact of $1.2 billion. The EDC has adopted a strategy of trying to recruit additional MRO facilities to the airport. MRO stands for maintenance, repair, and overhaul. Haberbosch-Wilson added that the goal lies in not bringing in so many such businesses that they cannibalize each other.
She shared that “aviation has been a hot topic” in recent years. The EDC focuses on combining the fields of aviation and technology in their approach, which enables them to support the airport and related endeavors, as well as federal agencies in the area, such as the FBI and NOAA. The EDC has focused in many areas, especially going into schools and helping to mobilize the aviation and tech workforce of the future. She points out that many high paying opportunities are “not all degreed programs.”
In some parts of the state, such as the New River and upper South Branch of the Potomac valleys, counties have created regional economic development organizations to focus on areas of similarity. Haberbosch-Wilson explains that regionalism has grown as an EDC goal, but that the organization would not benefit from physically joining another EDC or EDA.
Regional cooperation, however, makes sense. As Haberbosch-Wilson put it, “they (businesses) don’t care about county lines. Just tell them who they are dealing with – who has a seat at the table.”
The EDC works hand in hand not only with county organizations, but also regional. Harrison County is part of the Region VI Economic Planning and Development Council, one of nine across the state. Each serves as a place to facilitate cooperation and also help counties and municipalities with fewer resources or experience to obtain grants, to plan, and to comply with federal and state mandates related to economic development.
In recent years, the Harrison County EDC has initiated and completed a slate of major projects to help expand development and its impact throughout North Central West Virginia. This includes a $2.6 million grant to construct a 50,000 square foot structure, the Harrison County Regional Industrial Park. Two tenants, Blue Rock and Harvest Care Medical currently operate in the space.
The EDC has an inventory of almost 70 different locations that can host one or more thriving businesses.
Haberbosch-Wilson admits that the region has challenges for potential businesses, including the drug crisis, workforce issues, and other problems. She explains that most of the developed world now shares those difficulties. The key lies in showing local and regional efforts to combat problems and improve conditions. One example of this comes in the partnership with West Virginia University called Healthy Harrison, whose goal for the past six years has been to “measurably improve the health and wellness of the citizens of Harrison County.”
While perceptions die hard, especially those that hold a region back, Haberbosch-Wilson remains stridently optimistic about the future. “We have everything,” she states, then added “It’s time to look ourselves in the mirror and say we can do this.”