Tough Choices

As West Virginians, our challenge is to embrace change while holding onto our state's traditions.


Photographed by Rebecca Kiger

We are known for our country roads. Our rural routes can lead you to breathtaking locations, to serene spots, to pastoral places that are difficult to come by in other parts of the nation. Folks who’ve chosen to live off the beaten path often made those deliberate decisions because they wanted to escape the incessant noise and buzz of bigger towns—they wanted to breathe fresh air and live in wide open spaces where stars still twinkle at night. Others live in remote locations not by choice but because of necessity. Rural living is often more affordable. As I was reading Zack Harold’s article in the November/December issue of West Virginia Focus on the need for broader broadband access, a question kept popping into my mind: “Is access to broadband a right, or is it a luxury?”

Let’s face it. It is not fiscally feasible for companies to take infrastructure into every rural spot in our state. But at some point we have to decide where to draw the line. Where is far enough? Businesses have to make tough decisions. As Zack writes, some roads will always be unpaved. I’m not saying broadband is not critical to our state’s economic growth—it is. But reaching every holler in West Virginia is unrealistic. We need to focus on giving our small towns access so they can be attractive locations for people to work and live.

When I moved back to the state and was deciding where I wanted to live and locate my business, I made decisions based on what was most important to my family and me. Good schools, diverse community, healthy economy, access to arts and culture, good infrastructure, and close proximity to a university were all important factors. I did not choose to live off the grid. However, I have a vacation home where I do not have Internet or cable. I wanted a place to disconnect from technology. I find that as we—and I’m thinking about my children, who think they always have to be on Snapchat, watching YouTube, or playing Minecraft—are increasingly connected through technology, we have become disconnected from our families and communities. I find it healthy to step away from it all—to take walks together in the woods, to fish in our rivers, to drive our gravel roads and marvel at the landscape.

Shay Maunz’s story on what happens to company towns when the companies move away is also a tale of tough decisions and how those decisions can send a town into a tailspin. The takeaway for me is that we need to support entrepreneurship and small business growth. They can fill the void. But in order to do so, education—or re-education—is key. Our workforce will have to be flexible and will need to retool with new skills. How are we going to do that? With WVU Tech’s move from Montgomery to Beckley, the university is better poised to serve our southern population. It is going to be interesting to follow the university’s handling of the transition. What do they leave behind? What opportunities will present themselves? What have we learned from the past?

Twenty years ago, we weren’t worried about high-speed Internet. The beauty of technology is that it’s always rapidly changing. The adage “The only thing that is constant is change” has never been more true. As I see it, our challenge is to embrace change while holding onto the characteristics that make West Virginia so special. Sometimes, that calls for making tough decisions.

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