The COVID-19 pandemic swept through West Virginia in the spring of 2020, and the economic impact still remains to be seen. But members of Lewis County’s Economic Development Authority are working hard to minimize any potential economic damage wrought by the pandemic, all while keeping a eye on the future.
The Lewis County EDA and the Lewis County Commission have continued working over the past year on projects that benefit residents, with a focus on water and, most recently, broadband service, though COVID-19 has slowed some of those projects.
County Commissioner Agnes Queen explained that because taxes are collected for a given year in the following year, the true economic impact of COVID-19 for Lewis County remains to be seen.
“We don’t really know the impact of COVID-19 yet. We really have to wait and until next year to gauge the damage,” Queen said.
The Lewis County EDA in recent years has focused on infrastructure improvements, including water systems and broadband. Although the focus shifted to public health as the pandemic took hold, the EDA is still focused on improving the infrastructure needed for Lewis County to thrive in future.
Cindy Whetsell, county administrator and acting director of the Lewis County EDA, said underserved residents will now have access to broadband internet because of recently installed towers.
Coordinates have been picked for the towers to transfer signals for maximum impact, Whetsell added. Officials have also been working with landowners, who have all been cooperative, she said.
Queen said she and fellow Commissioners Rod Wyman and Bobby Stewart III are expanding local government into the community.
They have attended Neighborhood Watch meetings in Alum Bridge, Weston and Ireland. They also attend several other meetings in Lewis County and support nonprofit organizations.
The anticipated construction of a new Mon Health Stonewall Jackson Memorial Hospital closer to the I-79-U.S. 33 intersection has attracted interest from several businesses looking to expand their market in Lewis County.
The hospital serves as an anchor for economic development in the county, Queen noted.
Stonewall Jackson Memorial Hospital became affiliated with Mon Health in 2018.
Queen said that with the hiring of new Lewis County Park Director Josh Hinchman, she is excited to see new park programs.
Hinchman is planning year-round activities and has hired an activities coordinator for the park.
There are other local issues that commissioners are exploring, as well.
A new state law allows local governments to take action against homeowners whose homes have caught fire and have not been torn down yet. Local governments now will be able to hold those landowners responsible through their homeowners insurance.
This would apply only to residents whose homes are outside the city limits of Jane Lew and Weston, Queen said, adding that the law is not retroactive.
“We’re extremely busy,” she said.
The Lewis County EDA has had a focus on water line projects in recent years, Whetsell said.
The water expansion projects that began in 2019 in the northwestern area of Lewis County, including Hershman, Linger, Sassafras and Churchville roads, along with the Alum Fork/Laurel Run areas, were completed last summer.
The projects that have been completed have provided water to “well over” 1,000 homes, Whetsell said.
Recently, the Lewis County EDA applied for a Small Cities Block Grant to help fund a project that will provide water to the Copley, Wolfpen and Wheelers Fork areas.
“We are always working on water project expansion,” Queen said.
The Lewis County EDA also has been working with the West Virginia Economic Development Authority on website development.
According to Whetsell, prospective business owners who wish to relocate or expand their businesses will be able to access, via the internet, property information in Lewis County.
This information will be accessible on the West Virginia Economic Development Authority website, so Lewis County property will be listed and business owners can see what’s available for development.
Other counties involved in the project with Lewis are Randolph, Barbour and Upshur.
The Lewis County EDA is also part of the Mountaineer Economic Development Council, which includes Lewis, Monongalia, Marion and Harrison counties.
Whetsell said the Mountaineer Economic Development Council has opened up resources and included marketing opportunities.
The Lewis County EDA, for the first time in a long time, has a presence in trade shows, which highlights the county, Whetsell said.
She also noted that the LC EDA is working with the Lewis County Convention and Visitors Bureau.