February 28, 2019

Manchin Discusses Economic Opportunities In Southern West Virginia | The Beckley Register-Herald

In a room full of business leaders, entrepreneurs, regional and local government officials, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., opened by talking about banana bread.

Telling a story of his grandfather who ran a grocery store, the senator said his grandparents would get creative when unsold bananas would become too ripe for most customers.

"So, my grandmother would make banana bread and then Papa would always put the banana bread beside the ripened bananas and show people what it could do," Manchin said.

While happy to reminisce, Manchin wasn't in Beckley to discuss recipes.

The senator came to southern West Virginia as part of a celebration of National Entrepreneurship Week, particularly for a roundtable discussion with the local leaders at the Beckley offices of the WV Hive on the campus of West Virginia University's Institute of Technology.

Manchin applauded the work being done at the Hive, a business incubator launched by the New River Gorge Regional Development Authority.

Along with reminiscing about his family's history of small business, Manchin shared his own struggles in business. 

"I've put my house up for collateral to keep my business afloat. I had to get a line of credit. I did everything I could to survive," Manchin said. "So I've seen it all and I know what you go through."

Even through the struggles, Manchin said that the entrepreneur's path is the most rewarding. Before he went into government, Manchin said he had never received a paycheck from anyone other than himself.

"I wrote every one of my own checks," Manchin said. "I didn't cash them all, but I wrote them."

During the roundtable, Manchin said he's eyeing a major economic driver in southern West Virginia — the construction of a large hydroelectric dam. 

Manchin told those gathered that he would do everything he could to make the project go forward.

He compared the potential dam in the coalfields to Smith Mountain Lake in Virginia. He said he would like to see a project big enough and attractive enough to add value to the region through both tourism and the sale of hydroelectric energy.

"You've got to think bigger than what we've been thinking," Manchin said.

Manchin pointed toward a lack of reliable high-speed internet in the state as one of the biggest hurdles to economic prosperity.

The senator highlighted $6 billion to be invested in rural broadband in the next decade. He has called for the proper groundwork to be laid so the state could best benefit.

Manchin took aim at the lack of data about who has access and who doesn't. He called into question the accuracy of the Federal Communication Commission's maps regarding access.

"They're saying that 18 percent of West Virginia is non-serviced right now," Manchin said. "I think it's closer to 30 percent or greater and we're going to fight that."

Comparing the expansion of rural broadband to the rural electrification that took place under President Franklin Roosevelt, Manchin spoke on the necessity of a federal broadband infrastructure investment.

"It was so vital to survival and for us to move forward into the 20th century," the senator said of rural electrification. "In the 21st century, we're in that same crossroads right now. There are so many people that still don't have access to internet."

Noting that a private endeavor to install broadband infrastructure would not be economical in some sparsely populated areas, Manchin said that it was up to the government to ensure access to every resident.

"You can't force a private internet company to go into an area with 10 customers," Manchin said. 

"There's no return, I understand that. But what we can do is build the infrastructure, build the whole mile-out for them so that people can connect."

Along with broadband, the senator pushed for connecting the workforce with positions that are already available in the state.

"We have 10,000 jobs that I've been apprised about that we can't even fill," Manchin said. "What we've done a bad job of in West Virginia is not connecting the dots."

To that end, Manchin said that his staff is building a platform on his website that would try to connect people with open jobs in the state and with training opportunities that could help them fill those positions.


By:  Matt Combs