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West Virginia leaders reflect on changes

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Officials Look to future as the State Celebrates Sesquicentennial

Birthdays often are a time of reflection — a time to look back on the past year and assess your growth, your strengths and even your weaknesses with the hope of building on that in the future.

The same is true for West Virginia. As the Mountain State celebrates its 150th birthday, it's a good time for the state's leaders to look back on the past 50 years and reflect on the changes while looking forward to what the future might bring. 

"As I look back over 50 years, what is the best part? In my view it's the quality of life, the ease of living, the safe environment, the family atmosphere, the solid values that I think we've really been able to keep those close," said Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va. "I would hope in the next 50 years we can still do that. I think more and more I see in society with technology and everything those core values of being able to sit down at the dinner table for a meal and not worry about commuting an hour in a large city. … I hope we can still keep that part of our history. It could be part of our future."

When West Virginia celebrated its centennial in 1963, the Legislature laid out some plans for the future. The Second Wheeling Declaration noted West Virginia had changed in the first 100 years from "a mountain wilderness into a diversified agricultural and industrial complex, with much of its magnificent beauty still intact." It also charged the state's leaders to continue the tradition of "bold and resolute action in meeting the problems that confronted them." 

To accomplish those goals, the declaration continued, the state not only must develop young, aggressive leaders who are confident and imaginative, but it also must intensify support of democracy and free enterprise and develop resources to provide the most good for the greatest number of people over the longest period of time. In addition, the state's leaders "must constantly strive to broaden our economy, improve our education opportunities, promote our cultural development, and raise our standard of living so that West Virginia becomes an even better place for people to put down their roots and raise their families."

So has the state met those goals?

"We've made some (progress), but not nearly enough," said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

Manchin said the goals the Legislature set 50 years ago were important ones and would continue to be important.

"They'll probably be important 50 years from now."

Conrad Lucas, chairman of the West Virginia Republican Party, said the goals are "admirable and absolutely correct," but the state hasn't done all it can do over the past half-century to meet those goals.

"I wish the state had gone down a path of supporting those goals," he said. "But looking at the last 50 years, we've had a net population loss, our economy was gutted and (we've had) a lot of problems due to lack of innovation. However, all problems are fixable."

Lucas noted one way to fix those problems aligns with one of the Legislature's long-term goals: improve education opportunities.

"I would say, I honestly believe the best investments West Virginia can make in its future is in our education," Lucas said. "I think investing in higher education and innovation is the one thing our state needs desperately."

Lucas said the state looks at higher education through the wrong lens. Capito, on the other hand, said the state should concentrate on providing the best possible education for young people and work on improving the economy so they stay here after graduation.

"I think we're missing that," Capito said. "I think that's what our challenge is for the future as a state — to find a way to broaden our economic base, attract talent, create entrepreneurs so the nice side of living in West Virginia, the community living and the family living can round out a great future occupation."

Larry Puccio, chairman of the West Virginia Democratic Party, said Democrats are working to meet the goals set by the 1963 Legislature. 

"Democrats have been a force of constant progress the past 150 years and will continue to build a better future in the coming century — a future where every child receives a first-class education, entering the work force with a wealth of opportunities at their doorstep; a future where our senior citizens and working families find safety knowing our health care services are bar-none; a future full of possibility," Puccio said.

Fellow Democrat, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, has served West Virginia for many of the past 50 years. Since coming to the state as a VISTA volunteer in 1964, Rockefeller has served as member of the House of Delegates and as secretary of state, college president and two terms as governor before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1984. Throughout his time in office, Rockefeller said he's noticed the resiliency of West Virginians, and he thinks the state has a bright future.

"For 50 of our state's 150 years, I have had the incredible honor of working for the people of West Virginia," he said. "We've shared in tragedy and triumph, setbacks and successes, trying times and shining moments. We could point to many of those moments as symbolic of where we've been — and where we're going — but I like to focus first on what makes us who we are. Public service, that high and noble calling, is hard-wired into our West Virginia DNA. It's in our bloodstream. It binds us together when times are tough, and it brings us even closer as we rise above. The future of West Virginia is bright because of our commitment to serving each other; everything else flows from that."

Capito said she hopes the state's future leaders work to make the state more attractive to young people, including her two young grandchildren.

"I've enjoyed the first 50, and I may not be around for the next 50," she said. "But my kids and grandkids will be, so let's make it good."