What’s wrong with WV?

During my 14 year stay in West Virginia, I have always had a bit of a chip on my shoulder. I won’t pretend to be unbiased. My first impressions of this state were not positive. The people were unfriendly…absolute assholes in comparison to the warm folk of Central Kentucky. The landcape was a claustrophobic’s nightmare, with the majority of the population living in some narrow valley between overbearing, tree-covered mountains. I was not pleased. I missed the Bluegrass State from day one.

With time, my attitude matured and I was able to see past my initial disappointment. I made wonderful friends that I will keep for a lifetime. I discovered some of the most beautiful geography in the world. I was introduced to people and ideas that would forever shape my outlook. Without question, I’m hardly ungrateful. I owe much to this state.

Sadly, however, some of my first impressions were not simply the result of a bad predisposition. In that 14 years, many of them were validated time and again.

First and foremost, the population in general is sour and unfriendly toward outsiders. Once you’ve established a position within their social circle, they often open up. However, until that happens you are viewed with a certain suspicious contempt. I’ve contemplated the cause of this for many years. For a long time I just thought the people were ignorant dicks, not worth understanding. Why bother assigning any relevance to them, I thought. They’re just West “by God” Virginians, after all…half the U.S. doesn’t realize WV is a proper state abbreviation. But that mentality is what helps prevent this state from growing. I didn’t want to be part of the problem, so I decided to really dig for answers.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the poor attitude of this state can be attributed to years of exploitation by outside forces. There is absolutely no trust for those who would come in to the state to make money. Bad memories of the coal companies? Possibly. Anger toward those who parody and mock the citizens? Certainly. It’s no secret that WV has plenty of reason to be reluctant.

In order to grow, however, the citizenry is going to have to come to terms with the past, get over it, and plan for a future as an integrated element of the national economy. The common attitude needs to shift from, “If you don’t like it, get out,” to “If you don’t like it, help us fix it.” Until that happens, WV will remain at the bottom of the barrel (as almost every poll on education and economy has proven for decades).

Secondly, the political leaders need to make a concerted effort to share the beauty of this state with the world. Instead of adopting corny slogans (“Open for business”…wow) they need to be implementing a statewide beautification program and a national (or at least regional) marketing campaign. The two largest cities in the state, Huntington and Charleston, look like dumps. Both are being overrun by drugs and condemned buildings. Huntington is finally trying to remedy the problem with more strict Emminent Domain enforcement, but the program is only in it’s larval stage. Much still needs to be done.

The gateway to any state is going to be it’s largest cities. If these aren’t maintained to impress, who is going to bother searching the area for a reason to stick around? Most successful states have their iconic cities. Look at the Carolinas (Charlotte, Winston-Salem, Raleigh, Charleston, the Outer Banks). Look at Kentucky (Lexington, Louisville). Look at Ohio (Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati). All of these cities and towns are certainly more appealing than Huntington or Charleston. There’s no reason for that.

West Virginia has some of the most gorgeous hidden treasures you’ll ever find. But without some incentive to visit in the first place, it’s not likely anyone will ever really see them.

I challenge all citizens of West Virginia, especially those who love this state, to become an active part of the solution. Stop with the stubbornness. When someone criticizes something, ask them how they propose we fix it. Don’t resort to that ignorant indignation that has become stereotypical. Telling people to get out is not constructive, and it will only ensure that people do, indeed, leave…and with plenty of terrible stories to share with anyone else who might have considered visiting. You may think this state will sustain without any help from outsiders, but the fact is this state is drowning in it’s own isolationism. How does it feel to be ranked dead last in college educated adults? Hardly a point of pride, I think.

Please don’t misinterpret this as the advice of some self-righteous do-gooder on some naive mission to save anyone. At the end of the day, what happens in WV is WV’s problem. I won’t be around much.

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