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Regulations, workforce, taxes cited at W.Va. Chamber business summit

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- Business leaders and panelists Wednesday talked about a need for clear regulation standards, industrial infrastructure and an educated state workforce during the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce's 2013 Annual Meeting and Business Summit at The Greenbrier.

Steve Hedrick, CEO of Mid Atlantic Technology Research Innovation Center, mediated a panel of industry and education leaders. Hedrick opened by noting that manufacturing jobs are leading the state and should continue to do so.

Corporations have the potential to achieve goals anywhere in the world. Why not in West Virginia, panel members asked.

Greg Babe, president and CEO of Liquid X Printed Metals, said businesses and investors are looking at proximity to customers, site infrastructure, workforce skills, legal and regulatory ambiguities and state tax structure.

"Do we have a trained, reliable, drug-free workforce?" Babe asked.

His biggest concern in attracting manufacturing investments is the corporate tax rate. Lowering the rate below 7 percent would make the state more competitive with its neighbors, he added.

West Virginia University President Jim Clements said industry alone couldn't turn around the state's economy.

"A well-educated society is key for our nation," Clements said. "It takes a combination of industry and education working together to produce that kind of talent."

Clements said America is being outpaced in the classroom by other countries in areas that are crucial to manufacturing, such as science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

"This is an international issue," he continued. "Research, I believe, is one of the keys."

Despite nationwide funding cuts to higher education, Clements said, in a global market, it's critical to continue to allow "our research universities to operate at a world-class level."

He wants to see more women and under-represented minorities in STEM and wants to see research continue to drive innovation.

The cultivation of the state's natural gas industry was also discussed.

"This river of natural gas flowing beneath our feet provides opportunity," said Mark Hager, senior legislative representative for The Williams Company. "How we capitalize and use the opportunity lies before us."

He urged attendees to focus on the development of the entire Marcellus Shale region, including neighboring states, for mutual shared benefits. Again, Hager cited regulatory uncertainty as the biggest roadblock for capitalizing on spin-off manufacturing industries in the state.

 "Regulatory certainty doesn't mean I don't comply with the law," he said while he was talking about investing in future projects. "But I need to know what the rules will be 10 years down the road when I go apply for a permit."

In a later session, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey went a bit further.

"We know West Virginia is still not as competitive as it needs to be, from a business perspective," Morrisey said. "We know that if you look around to all the states West Virginia touches, we have the highest combined individual and corporate tax rate."

He cited Forbes magazine listing West Virginia as the 45th best state for business. He also noted that 36 percent of the state's budget comes from a more-than-ever-before crash-strapped Washington.

"West Virginia has to supercharge its economy in order to position itself effectively for the future, but to do that, we're going to need a radical transformation of the state's economy," Morrisey said. "We're going to have to make some major changes within the next year or two."

Reach Caitlin Cook at caitlin.cook@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5113.


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