(10/28/2009)
Story by Mike Ruben
statejournal.com

Answers to two questions play significant roles in the economy of Calhoun County. What is the price of natural gas? What is the demand for timber?

Unfortunately, neither question leads to the desired answer. Gas prices are down, and with slow rates for home construction, business is down for those who timber.

As a result, Calhoun County's unemployment rate for June 2009 was 15 percent, surpassed in West Virginia only by the 15.5 percent reported for neighboring Wirt County.

The latest Calhoun figures are up from 13.8 percent in May, and have ballooned since June 2008 when WorkForce West Virginia documented a jobless rate at 5.6 percent.

National economists have observed that West Virginia typically lags into and out of a recession. Local observers say it is likewise for Calhoun County, with a population of 7,200 that has dipped nearly 5 percent over the last decade.

"We're starting to see some of the impact," said James L. Bennett, CEO of Calhoun Banks from his office in Grantsville. The bank also operates branch locations in the communities of Arnoldsburg, Elizabeth and Glenville.

"Our economy is very closely tied to oil and gas," Bennett said. "When the natural gas prices are high, the companies are hiring and people are buying things. Now, they (drilling operations) have cut back a lot and the capital spending has dried up."

Francis Cain said that his company would normally have drilled 3-5 new wells by this time of the year, but is yet to drill its first well in 2009.

"We've got some problems," he said of the industry. "We're getting one-third to one-fourth of what we were getting this time last year, and there are a lot of people who are unemployed."

For example, Cain Oil & Gas had 17 full or part-time employees a year ago, but is now down to seven.

"It runs in cycles," Cain said. "It'll come back."

It's the same trend for area loggers, according to Bennett.

"We have several timber-related businesses here, but they are almost at a standstill," he said. "These are small timber operations, but it accumulates when you add up all of them. All that trickles down to the local economy."

Things tend to move at a slower pace in rural areas such as Calhoun County. The parking meters in the county seat of Grantsville, for instance, accept only nickels and dimes. Shoppers at the local grocery still get carryout service. And residents here have a history of not spending beyond their means.

While several of the large national banks were drowning in debt from bad loans, Calhoun Banks, which has served the area for 109 years, did not have a single home repossession in 2008 and has had only one repossession during the current year.

We're healthy," Bennett said. "We haven't suffered some of the problems that we've seen on the national level. We didn't have a huge boom here -- our property values didn't experience that. Being in a rural area is not always a bad thing."

In fact, Bennett said he has been pleasantly surprised with the demand for real estate loans. "It's been fairly active, although it is starting to slow down some," he said.

Commission President Bob Weaver noted that Calhoun has been included on the list of lowest income counties in America.

"The economy here was not good to begin with," he said. "People here have been accustomed to hunkering down and adjusting through the years."

Weaver said the few light industrial manufacturers that were once located in the region have generally been replaced by overseas operations, forcing some residents into two- or three-hour commutes to secure jobs. And now, those out-of-county jobs are being lost, too, thanks to the recession.

"There's generally a lack of opportunity in the county and this region," he added.

statejournal.com


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