Commentary: Dave Peyton

Asking the question that is unanswerable

"How is it that we can live in a state that is so wealthy in resources, in water and natural gas and coal, and our people still be so poor?"

That was the question asked by Arley Johnson, director of the West Virginia Office of Economic Opportunity, last Monday at a memorial service for those killed in the Buffalo Creek floods 35 years ago.

Johnson was a youngster then, living on Buffalo Creek. He says his life was permanently changed by what he saw. I call the question he asked "The question of the ages," especially for West Virginia.

If there were a simple answer, it would have been answered decades ago and West Virginia might be on a different path.

But Tupelo, Miss., the miracle town that I wrote about Friday, may provide part of the answer.

First, there appears to be a worldwide problem with regions that are awash with natural resources. Many of those regions have some of the poorest people in the world.

I appeared with Jean Dean last week on her radio talk show and we talked briefly about "the question."

"Surely you have an answer," the former Huntington mayor said. I told her I didn't but I continue to think about it, the same way Johnson does.

I mentioned the fact that regions rich in natural resources are often poor. Dean is a native of Great Britain. I mentioned that Wales is rich with coal but poor economically. I asked her why. She didn't have an answer.

Back to the Tupelo miracle: The Mississippi town is on fire economically. Fifty years ago, it was one of the poorest towns in a poor state. Last week, it attracted a billion dollar Toyota assembly plant, only the latest big business to locate in that town and Lee County where it's located.

The turnaround is attributed to the late George McLean, who moved to Tupelo in the depths of the depression and vowed to turn things around. He did it.

Tupelo has no "natural resources." as we define them here in West Virginia. No coal, no gas or oil, no timber. But that was OK with McLean. He realized that the greatest natural resource is people. That's why he decided that education and taking care of people was the key to successful economic development. He was proved right.

Now, imagine going throughout West Virginia asking people to name West Virginia's most important natural resource. How many would answer "the people"? Very few, I suspect, because, in most West Virginian's minds, people aren't a natural resource.

So, I suspect that part of the reason so many poor people live in a state that's so rich with coal, gas and timber and water is that few of us put people on our list of the most important natural resources. And, I suspect it's the same way in Wales and all those other regions where poor people live amidst such incredible wealth.

Oddly, it was easy for McLean to choose people as the mechanism for the turnaround. It was all he had. But he proved that working to develop the potential of the people not only makes good business sense but it lifts people out of their misery.

If only it were that way in West Virginia.

Dave Peyton can be reached at   davepeyton@davepeyton.com