Wood County communication series begins

PARKERSBURG – Community members discussed the benefits and challenges of living here during the first in a series of “Let’s Talk, Wood County” discussions Wednesday.

The program is part of the statewide “What’s Next, West Virginia?” initiative aimed at helping communities plan for the state’s future. Held in the multipurpose room at West Virginia University at Parkersburg, Wednesday’s session drew about two dozen people, many of them students or faculty members at the school.

The topic was “Where are we now?” focusing on the current status of the community and its economy. Sessions slated for Monday and Wednesday next week will center on “Where do we want to go?” and “How do we get there?” respectively.

Organizers hope to eventually spread the discussion out across the county, volunteer moderator Jean Ambrose said.

“We would love to see a conversation in Waverly, in Rockport, in Deerwalk,” she said.

The people gathered Wednesday were asked for their impressions of the community and why they wanted to participate in the discussion.

“I’m a single mother, and I have a 6-year-old, and I want this to be some place she wants to stay,” said Michelle Reck, a Williamstown resident studying psychology and business administration at WVU-P.

Reck said she is confident she’ll be able to find a job and stay in the area she’s moved from and returned to twice. But other participants weren’t so optimistic.

“I’m an accounting major, and I feel like unless I work at Public Debt or open my own business … I really don’t have any other options here,” said Jason Hall, another WVU-P student.

Parkersburg resident Debbie Crites said she enrolled at WVU-P in her late 50s after being displaced from the now-shuttered Coldwater Creek distribution center because, for the first time in her life, she felt the need for more education.

“(In the past) I could leave one job and go right into another,” she said. “(Today) to get a job that’s a career – they’re not out there.”

Joyce Okes, program director with the Workforce Investment Board of the Mid-Ohio Valley, said there used to be more goods-producing industries in the area, in more fields.

“I think if you look 30 years ago, we had a great deal more diversity in our economy,” she said.

But Okes said she sees positive signs, with the unemployment rate heading down after spiking to 9 percent in 2010.

Gary Thompson, WVU-P instructional specialist teaching in the fields of energy and engineering, said the conversation of how the state moves into the future is an important one as the coal industry declines and natural gas activity increases.

“West Virginia is on the verge of a seismic shift in its economy,” he said. “We have the chance to set the stage and do things right.”

That includes making sure the process is beneficial to the state and the community, strengthening the economy and protecting the environment.

Environmental conditions are something WVU-P English professor Rebecca Phillips sees as an obstacle to more people living or staying here.

“I’m hearing one very sad pattern of students who are saying, ‘I would love to stay here … but my kids are sick all the time,'” she said, noting the area’s repeated poor showing in air-quality grades and indexes.

Senta Goudy, executive director of the WVU-P Foundation, returned to the area this year after living away for almost 30 years. While she sees a lot of “used-to-bes” and misses downtown Parkersburg functioning as a central gathering place, Goudy said she also sees hope.

“We have an increasing number of people in the community who are making the effort to make this a better place for themselves and their family,” she said.

Some participants noted the area’s relative lack of diversity, saying that could be a deterrent to some people who might consider living here.

“We have signs that say we respect diversity, but we don’t even know what diversity is,” said Brian Raitz, director of the Parkersburg and Wood County Public Library.

Topics brought up by participants were written down and will be discussed in the next session, slated for 11 a.m. Monday, again in the multipurpose room at the college. The event is open to the public, regardless of whether people attended the first one.