Insight: Is West Virginia Missing Out on the Creative Economy?

A previous Insight article was about Vermont, the attraction of its natural environment, forests, small towns and cities, as an alternative to big city life. For many potential migrants, including creative professionals and entrepreneurs – these lifestyle factors can be a draw and, along with telecommunications, opens up economic opportunities away from larger cities. The article included references to qualitative interviews, population growth numbers, as well as the successes of local enterprises in Vermont.

A key to all this is the environment and natural landscapes, as stated in the article:

Monetary value alone cannot capture the intangible value of enjoying forests and other natural surroundings, it is important for policy-makers to account for environmental costs – including the benefits of pristine natural environments for tourism and as a draw for new residents, which entail intangible use values. There needs to be smart policy, an emphasis on environmental conservation, to preserve the natural advantages of such locations, to promote these advantages rather than run away from them or, worse, destroy them altogether (Arif 2012).

So what are “smart policies” versus “dumb policies”? For smaller jurisdictions (and even larger ones as well) — where the natural environment and small town/city environments are draws for new residents and tourists, it would be preserving these advantages, through environmental conservation and planning initiatives designed to curb sprawl, preserve forested and rural landscapes, and promote city and town centres.

In Appalachian states like West Virginia, mountaintop removal mining — where mountaintops are literally blasted off to get at coal deposits — is destroying a natural landscape which is an important part of the state’s identity. Furthermore, mountaintop removal mining creates airborne pollution, contaminating streams, and entails the creation of dangerous sludge ponds where the waste is held.

An activity like mountaintop removal mining may ostensibly add to GDP, but it creates new costs in, among other things, lost economic opportunities. This includes lost recreational values, loss in the region’s identity, and — as seen with the example of Vermont — loss in factors that can be draws for tourists and creative professionals and entrepreneurs.

West Virginia is in close proximity to Metro-DC — part of the state is in the periphery of the Washington-Arlington-Alexandria metropolitan area. Could West Virginia — like Vermont — hold the potential to be a draw as an alternative to urban life? Is this potential being destroyed through practices like mountaintop removal which destroy the natural landscape?

West Virginia and Vermont are somewhat comparable, both being smaller jurisdictions — West Virginia’s 2011 population was 1,852,994 where it was 626,431 for Vermont. As well, both states can boast scenic natural vistas, smaller cities, and communities.

Exhibit 1: Unemployment rates – US, Vermont and West Virginia

Unemployment rates — US, Vermont, and West Virginia

On the Creativity Index, as per Richard Florida’s (2012) most recent book, The Rise of the Creative Class Revisited, Vermont’s only metropolitan area — Burlington-South Burlington — ranks 15th out of 361 for 2010, with a Creativity Index of 0.918. Excluding Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, the metropolitan region in West Virginia that ranks highest on the Creativity Index is the university town of Morgantown – the site of West Virginia University — which ranks 156th at 0.534.

Exhibit 2: Creativity Index – 2010

Creativity Index - 2010

One could cite Morgantown’s — and West Virginia’s — low Tolerance Index Rank as inhibitors of fostering a Creative Class. However, university towns in “intolerant” regions have succeeded in developing flourishing creative economies. For example, Durham North Carolina, home of Duke University and part of the Research Triangle, ranks 8th on the Creativity Index at 0.953. Another example is the Austin-Roundrock metropolitan area in Texas, home of the University of Texas, which ranks 17th at 0.916.

In addition, there is a grassroots effort – involving multiple stakeholders — to foster a creative economy in West Virginia. Create West Virginia, aims, in its mission statement, to empower local communities, support statewide initiatives to build up creative economy pillars such as tolerance and technology, and promote West Virginia to creative class members — such as artists and entrepreneurs — as a place to live and work (Create West Virginia 2012).

The desire for a creative economy in the state is there. Preserving, and thereby promoting, the state’s natural heritage would complement and enhance these efforts.
The economic draw of natural environments and rural landscapes is relevant to debates around activities that damage and fundamentally alter these landscapes. With, for example, the shale gas fracking debate in eastern Canada and the northeastern United States, this is a very relevant part of that debate. Policy-makers must fully account for the economic benefits of natural landscapes — including those that stem from intangible use and enjoyment – in economic development, and include this as a central part of the economic development equation.


Download this Insight (PDF)

The Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto‘s Rotman School of Management is the world’s leading think-tank on the role of sub-national factors — location, place and city-regions — in global economic prosperity. We take an integrated view of prosperity, looking beyond economic measures to include the importance of quality of place and the development of people’s creative potential.