Downtown Morgantown on High Street

West Virginia’s young people are fleeing the state. How do we get them to return?

Originally published in West Virginia Focus magazine

“As a teenager, all I wanted was to get out of the state to get better opportunities and different attitudes. I felt like there was nothing I could do to help my home, and I couldn’t find the kind of jobs I wanted,” says Amanda Wenisch, 28, a Mercer County native. A year after graduating college, she moved to Blacksburg, Virginia—just an hour away from the rural community outside of Athens where Wenisch grew up but, as one of Virginia’s fastest growing municipal areas, worlds apart.

Wenisch’s story echoes that of many young West Virginians. The state’s 20-somethings are hefting their tote bags and slamming their car trunks to make a beeline for the highways on their way out of state. They’re not just leaving for college. Our tech-savvy, bold, impatient, and energetic children are all grown up and many are not coming back. As towns across the state shutter windows on businesses and flip the “open” sign to “closed” for the last time, residents are left facing a dwindling economy and a growing concern for the future. Our population is shrinking, and with it our economy and federal representation. The younger generation, those college-bound and 30-somethings, were supposed to steer the state into the future, but will they?

Who are they?

Millennials like Wenisch were born between the early 1980s and late 1990s. National headlines either love them or hate them. Millennials grew up on the Internet, they can’t stop texting, they’re often called lazy, and they are to blame for the “selfie” photo phenomenon taking social media by storm. According to the Pew Research Center, more than 80 percent of millennials use social networking sites. Around 30 percent are unaffiliated with a religion. They are the most liberal of the four generations living today. One third of millennials were raised with only one parent, but most rank being a good parent or having a successful marriage higher on their life priority list than becoming famous or having a high-paying career. Millennials are also civic-oriented, creative, accepting of social differences, and facing more economic hardship than the Gen Xers and baby boomers who came before them. The 2009 recession and high student debt have forced thousands of older millennials back to the parental nest after college, nicknaming the group the “boomerang generation.” But despite economic hardships they remain optimistic about the country’s future on a whole.

“Leaving West Virginia was really my only option if I wanted to do what I had been planning to do my entire life.” – Dustin Durham

Why are they going?

“Central to West Virginia’s brain drain problem is a lack of economic diversification in the state. A lot of high school graduates feel like they can’t pursue their careers of choice in West Virginia,” says Tighe Bullock, 25, a West Virginia University law student. Brain drain is the phenomenon when an educated population leaves a place in droves to start life somewhere else. After high school Bullock left West Virginia to go to college in Vermont, but education costs and the PROMISE scholarship brought him home. He graduated in 2011 with degrees in business management and accounting from WVU. He is now a city councilman in his hometown of Thurmond and founded Bullock Properties to renovate dilapidated buildings in Charleston. He is also running for the state House of Delegates in the 32nd District.

Bullock says the time he spent away made him see the opportunities available in state, but, for the most part, young people still believe their career paths are limited in West Virginia. Sixty percent of the 500-plus respondents to our millennials survey on said young people are leaving because of jobs, and another 10 percent said jobs were a primary reason young people leave. Estimates show more than 60 percent of West Virginians who graduate from college in West Virginia work in the state after graduation. But according to the WVU Bureau of Business and Economic Research, the more academically accomplished the student, the more likely he or she is to leave the state.

“Leaving West Virginia was really my only option if I wanted to do what I had been planning to do my entire life,” says Dustin Durham, a 2008 graduate of Riverside High School in Kanawha County. “I’ve wanted to be an architect since I was 5.” Durham, 23, is pursuing an architecture degree at the University of Tennessee. West Virginia doesn’t have any accredited architecture degree programs, though several colleges are working to develop them. Durham plans to stay in Knoxville after graduating, for both career and lifestyle reasons. “I want to live in the heart of the city, in the middle of the action, and I’d like to walk or bike everywhere if possible because I know it’s better for my wallet, my waistline, and the environment,” he says. “In West Virginia, where are my housing options?”

Lifestyle and job creation are inextricably tied, and West Virginia is spiraling. “A lot of people are leaving the state for a lifestyle we can’t offer in West Virginia. A lot of people are leaving for work opportunities. It’s a double-edged sword,” says Elizabeth Sudduth, 34, co-chair of Generation West Virginia, a statewide network of organizations promoting young talent and interests. If the jobs aren’t available, you can’t develop the lifestyle, and we don’t have the lifestyle to have those jobs available, Sudduth argues.

So why don’t millennials just stay and change things for themselves? “Knoxville is a city that has adults who are open to the ideas of change, and a city government that tries to make the city grow and increase the quality of life. When I think of the leadership back home, I think of the opposite,” Durham says. Younger people see the state as stuck in the 1960s, leadership as a boys’ club, and people in powerful positions who aren’t ready to let go.

“Their experiences are that older generations shut them out, and they give up—no one has helped them identify what role they can play, now or in the future,” says Lindsay Emery, an Ohio transplant making a name for herself in the WVU Office of Research & Economic Development. After graduating from Morgantown’s University High School in 2006, she left for Duke University. Her current role grew out of a chance opportunity and mentor support. After graduation she was out of work and, like many in her generation, she moved back in with her parents. Emery took a few odd jobs before landing a temporary position at WVU. “I never would have guessed I would be in this space, and I owe it all to a few select individuals who supported me, challenged me, and gave me remarkable opportunities to grow personally and professionally,” she says. “I consider myself very lucky. I doubt many people my age have such a strong support system.”

An overwhelming 77 percent of respondents to our survey say they feel West Virginia does not support the education and employment of its youth. They reported not feeling adequately prepared in schools, though many had good things to say about West Virginia’s methods of promoting higher education through programs like the PROMISE scholarship—which also helps students stay debt-free. Jobs were another matter. “I think West Virginia supports the education of youth through scholarships and good schools at the college level, but I felt like there weren’t many job opportunities once I got my degree. There seemed to be more jobs available to ‘unskilled’ workers than those with specific degrees,” one respondent says. Respondents also mentioned seeing a boys’ club atmosphere in West Virginia leadership and politics. “They’re all stuck in the Mad Men era,” Durham says. “I’m not.”

Paul Daugherty, co-founder of Generation West Virginia, noticed it, too. Ten years ago, Parkersburg—where he lived for many years—was doing little to encourage the involvement and retention of young people in the community, and they were leaving as a result. “The connectivity of a 20- or 30-something was fleeting because the community wasn’t engaging that populace in leadership roles, employment opportunities, or network and civic engagement,” Daugherty says. “If someone isn’t connecting with the fabric of our community within a year or two, they’re moving to where they are welcomed.” Usually they’re not moving within state lines, either. They’re moving to Columbus, Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, or Charlotte, Daugherty says. Data from the 2000 and 2010 national census shows a 3 percent drop in population of people aged 18 to 34 statewide, which amounts to 11,800 people. This is partially due to aging, but it’s also because of out-migration. There was an even bigger decrease in 35- to 44-year-olds, people in the prime of their careers, at a 12.8 percent drop.

“What I learned in the outside world showed me what my hometown has and the opportunity that exists to create something here.” – Lori McKinney

Who Is Coming Back?

This challenge is something Generation West Virginia has tried to fight head on. The group began in 2006 as an umbrella for separate youth talent organizations in Parkersburg, Huntington, Morgantown, Charleston, Martinsburg, and Wheeling. These organizations advocate for the interests and civic and employment opportunities for young people in the state, who Daugherty sees as West Virginia’s greatest hope. In addition to his work with Generation West Virginia, he is also a co-founder of Young Emerging Leaders of the Mid-Ohio Valley and several nonprofits, and he was instrumental in the founding of the Governor’s Council on Young Talent during Governor Joe Manchin’s tenure. At 35, Daugherty is president of Philanthropy West Virginia, an organization promoting philanthropy statewide. “This has an economic impact, this has a social impact, this has a civic impact, this has a way of life impact, and if people keep leaving the state, we’re not going to be able to operate and have vibrant communities,” he says.

In southern West Virginia, Princeton was a dying town with a prostitution problem until young people became interested in regrowth, says Robert Farley, director of the Princeton Chamber of Commerce. Located in Mercer County, Princeton boomed during the turn of the 20th century with the construction of the Virginian Railway carrying coal to the Virginia coast. The town became a division headquarters of the railway, but by the late 1900s, as the coal seams dried up and railway consolidation eliminated jobs, the town was all but devastated. Many of the town’s shops affiliated with the railway were demolished by the 2000s. “It got so run down. Lewisburg started upkeep years ago and didn’t let their downtown get to a point that it was trashy and looked bad,” Farley says. “Our community didn’t do that and it got worse and worse until the people who lived here all their lives didn’t even want to go downtown.” Kids who grew up in Princeton during its down years headed straight for the state line after graduating.

“When I was growing up, I knew I needed to leave. I was very creative and what I was seeking wasn’t in Princeton,” Lori McKinney says of her hometown. “But what I learned in the outside world showed me what my hometown has and the opportunity that exists to create something here.” At 35, McKinney is leading revitalization efforts in downtown Princeton, backed by a growing creative community, a cooperative government partnership, and the West Virginia Community Development Hub, which provides resources and assistance in the growth. After high school McKinney left West Virginia for college and to travel, but she returned in 2004 and began a grassroots effort to clean up Princeton. She is the founder and director of RiffRaff, a local arts and theater collective. Since she returned and under the direction of the Princeton Renaissance Project, the town has been transformed.

Among other projects, Princeton has remodeled its old post office to become a public library, built a railroad museum, brought a handful of new businesses to an improved downtown area, and launched a community mural project that continues to expand. The town installed new lighting and streetscaping, and a community garden was in the works in early spring. A volunteer spirit is prevalent. People are moving back—even young ones. “I’ve been following the Princeton Renaissance Project online, and it has both my husband and myself excited to return and get involved,” Wenisch says. “I just love the idea of a vibrant downtown. I would not be as excited to return if things like this weren’t going on.”

When Wenisch left she says she thought Blacksburg would be perfect for her career and lifestyle. “I was working for a government consulting firm that did project management and IT solutions for federal agencies. I really liked that I was able to get that kind of experience while still in a small, rural area,” she says. But Blacksburg isn’t Washington, and the longer Wenisch was gone the more she realized that, to further her career, she would have to go more urban. “None of these options were appealing to me. I also never felt comfortable in Blacksburg. It’s a lovely place, but it was never my home,” she says. “As I entered my later 20s, I realized I wanted to be part of a community I loved.”

Wenisch and her husband are in the process of selling their home in Virginia to move back to Mercer County. Thanks to technology, both can have a freelance career in their computer-based fields just about anywhere. Wenisch says she’s in the starting phases of launching a web-presence and marketing consulting company with a colleague. “Princeton has so many exciting grassroots initiatives right now. Volunteers are working to revitalize the downtown, and I know so many people who left for school or jobs, and we’re all slowly returning,” she says. “The coming decades are so important for West Virginia as industries change and generations shift. There’s only one reason we can’t adapt to that changing world, and that is if there are no people around to help that evolution. The least I can do is try.”

Princeton’s revitalization story is a bullet point in a list of other projects around the state. Main Street programs across West Virginia are putting forth an effort to economically and socially revitalize formerly bustling, now abandoned downtowns, and young people help run many of them. Growing up in these dying neighborhoods has attracted millennials to economic revitalization jobs and coming home.

“Being born in Logan County and seeing the deteriorating economy is actually what inspired me to pursue a degree in community development,” says Stephanie Johnson. Twenty-seven years old, Johnson is the director of Charleston’s West Side Main Street revitalization program. “I went to grad school at Clark University in Massachusetts with the intention of returning to make this a place where millennials and other generations want to live,” she says. Using grants and donations from fundraisers, West Side Main Street works to improve the aesthetics of vacant properties on the west side of Charleston and with developers to reintroduce those properties to the community. “I love to see that Charleston is putting some of the future of the city and the state into the hands of people my age,” Johnson says.

“Without a strong working class, West Virginia will not generate the growth needed to sustain our economy.” – Tighe Bullock

Will Millennials save WV?

“We need to take ownership of the good, the bad, and the ugly, and step up. Leadership is not a title. It’s what we do,” Daugherty says. “Now is the time for 20- and 30-somethings to make current middle school, high school, and college students aware that you can create a business, you can find a career, and you can make a great quality of life here in West Virginia. It is going to require some hard work.”

West Virginia’s economy has faced countless booms and busts due to the state’s dependency on natural resource extraction. It’s traumatic to an economy, and generations of parents have encouraged their kids to leave to escape it. “Joblessness in parts of West Virginia is because of the reduction in coal mining. When these jobs leave, a vicious cycle may ensue,” says John Deskins, director of the WVU Bureau of Business and Economic Research. Disability, disaffected youth, drugs, teen pregnancies, and all of the problems that come along with joblessness are making the cycle worse. “We’re talking about human capital altogether, and human capital is education but it’s also health,” Deskins says. “If you have some shock that causes jobs to leave, people may fall into unemployment and drug abuse.”

Only 33 percent of fifth- through 12th-graders are success-ready, according to a national Gallup State of American Schools report. The remaining two-thirds of students aren’t hopeful, aren’t engaged, and aren’t thriving—all of which are important characteristics of successful students. West Virginia’s students consistently score among the lowest in the nation. Of people aged 25 and older in the nation, 28.5 percent hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. In West Virginia that number is 18 percent. “That’s a big difference,” Deskins says. “If our college attainment rate is a third lower than the national rate, a business may be less inclined to come here.”

The best thing to do is make the business foundation fertile as soon as possible. In the rush for mineral wealth, boomtowns are more likely to forgo the development of a strong economic base. Areas of the state that didn’t have a traditional focus in mineral extraction tend to be doing better economically. “It’s about diversification,” Daugherty says. “Coal is going to be a part of our future, and gas and natural resource extraction is going to be a part of it. But it’s transitioning ourselves to seeing there are other opportunities out there. You don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” Of the young people who responded to our poll, hundreds would like to see more emphasis on other industries, including tourism, health care, and technology, but they are discouraged by attitudes about the state’s traditional industries. “I am not someone who thinks all coal plants should cease operations right now,” Durham says. “But the fact that people back home are unwilling to have a meaningful conversation about what comes next is not only disheartening, it’s honestly frightening.” Durham hopes to return to West Virginia some day, but now he says the environment isn’t one where he can thrive.

Young people say they want to see the state open up and be more progressive at addressing these issues. “Without a strong working class, West Virginia will not generate the growth needed to sustain our economy,” Bullock says. “The state needs to promote education, attract businesses, and revitalize our downtown areas to be more attractive to businesses and youth looking to make their home in the Mountain State.”

From wages to education, West Virginia’s neighboring states are more competitive and are drawing talent away from our borders. Embracing risk, encouraging philanthropy, and making room for young people to step up are vital to making them stay. “When you look at communities who have had transformation, it’s been private, it’s been public, it’s been corporate, it’s been community and individual philanthropists investing. We can’t be complainers, but rather doers who create the change that we want to see,” Daugherty says. “We’re not going to recruit every young person to come back here or stay here, but there is a group we can go after. They want to be leaders and they don’t want to wait until their 50s or 60s. They want to do it now.”

Written by Katie Griffith

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