Economy Beginning to Shine in a 'Reviving' West Virginia

Article excerpt

By William K. Stevens CHARLESTON, W.Va. - In decades past, West Virginians pointed to the gilded dome of their State Capitol as a symbol of the cons iderable pride they have always taken in their state.

But as the coal economy crumbled over the years and the state's pride with it, the gold leaf peeled off the dome. Gov. Arch A. Moore Jr. has long wanted to regild it but has resisted because of howthat might look in a state whose unemployment rate led the nation.

Now, at last, Moore has ordered new gold leaf. He decided to ""go for the gold'' because West Virginia's unemployment rate, for the first time since 1982, is not the country's highest and is dropping.

That is the best economic news the state has had in a long time. The change has come in part because Louisiana is suffering from the collapse in oil prices and is now No. 1. However, the drop in West Virginia's unemployment rate has been not just relative but real, substantial and steady, statistics show.

The reason, economists and officials say, is twofold. Since 1980 thousands of unemployed workers have fled the shrinking manufacturing and coal industries that once formed West Virginia's economic base. They have been forced to do so because coal and manufacturing have undergone yet another contraction, perhaps a final one.

Leaner and more stable than before, those industries are nevertheless shadows of their former selves when it comes to providing jobs. Many of the workers squeezed out by this latest contraction have left the state. Others retired.

At the same time, the service sector of the economy is growing significantly, creating new jobs for those who remain in the state's reduced work force. Employment in service occupations grew 6 percent in 1985, and state officials hope that is a foretaste of things to come.

What this signifies, say the experts, is that the West Virginia economy, like that of the Northeast, has undergone a fundamental, even historic shift in character. The 1980's, they say, has been a period of painful readjustment to the contraction in mining and manufacturing. They believe that the worst is over and that the future lies in activities ranging from tourism to health care to research to high technology.

The state has barely embarked on that postindustrial road, however. Despite the dropping unemployment rate, it is still in double digits: 13.1 percent in February and 11.7 percent in March. In contrast, the national unemployment rate was 7.8 percent in February and 7.5 percent in March.

""We were floored - now we're up, but groggy,'' says Ralph Halstead, an official of the State Department of Employment security who is highly regarded as an economic analyst.

Still, there is tentative new hope in the state, matching the fresh, green look of spring that envelops the hills enclosing this valley capital.

Louisiana surpassed West Virginia in February as the state with the highest unemployment rate, 13.2 percent, according to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Although the crash in oil prices is cited as one reason Louisiana surged to the front, the West Virginia improvement is real in its own terms. In the 13 months through March 1986 its rate dropped by 5.3 percentage points, from a high of 17 percent. Moore expects the rate to drop to third- or fourth-highest in the country when comparative federal statistics are released May 13.

The number of unemployed workers has declined by 9,500 over the last year, according to Dr. William Miernyk, an economist at West Virginia University. A little more than half the decline, he said, can be attributed to an increase of 4,800 jobs statewide, the rest to a further loss of 4,700 workers from the work force, through retirement, disability and migration from the state. …