MORGANTOWN, W.Va.—In a hotel just off of West Virginia University’s campus in early June, drowsy night shift workers from the local pharmaceutical plant filed through a poorly lit suite, filling out unemployment paperwork, applying for supplemental health insurance and cracking jokes about the breathtaking advertisements for a new state program that will pay you to move to a place many of them are considering leaving.
Six months before, officials at Viatris announced that the plant, which has been a fixture in Morgantown since 1965, would close at the end of July, shipping more than 1,500 jobs overseas. In a state already suffering from the freefall of its signature coal mining industry, the loss of jobs that paid as much as $80,000 sent alarms through the capital.
This spring, the state legislature passed a resolution calling on the governor, Congress and union-friendly President Joe Biden to save the plant by converting the facility to manufacture medical supplies and Covid-19 vaccines. Nothing came of the effort, and the local steelworkers union, which represents the pharmaceutical workers, continued to prepare its members for the inevitable shuttering.
But in April, the same month that new Census figures showed West Virginia had lost more than 60,000 people since 2010 (the largest percentage of any state), a splashy ad campaign kicked off around the country. It enticed out-of-state workers to “break free of the urban confines” of the big city and relocate to “simple and pure” West Virginia. Morgantown would be first in line for a new privately funded $25 million program called Ascend WV that offered outsiders $12,000 cash to move to West Virginia to work remotely. As an added sweetener, the program promised to throw in a year of free outdoor activities like whitewater rafting, rock climbing and skiing.
Which is why the workers in the dreary hotel conference room were swapping sarcastic comments about the state’s promise of easy living and outdoor bliss. One of them, Chad McCormick, is a 43-year-old pig farmer and father of three who has worked full-time at the plant for 20 years moving blue drums of chemicals covered in skulls and crossbones.
“A kayak is like 800 bucks, and you need a truck to lug it,” McCormick scoffed.
Some of his coworkers are hoping to land in warmer places like Florida and the Carolinas; decent-paying jobs are few, especially for people without college degrees. But McCormick told me he is trying to stick it out, applying to become a school bus driver here in Morgantown. Even if he gets the new job, it will likely cut his $75,000 salary by more than half.
“If it wasn't for the ties to the family aspects, I’d be out, too. I’m stuck here for moral reasons. I can’t sell the family farm,” said McCormick, sporting a red beard, baseball cap and jean shorts. “As far as me telling someone to come live here … there’s not a lot of incentive.”
But proponents of Ascend WV aren’t looking for people like McCormick. They’re looking for someone like Jordan Pectyo.
Pectyo, a 28-year-old software engineer from Bentonville, Ark., is one of the more than 7,500 people who has applied for the Ascend program. Later this month, state tourism officials sifting through applications at the program’s headquarters, which happens to be located just two miles away from the soon-to-close Viatris plant, will announce the first class of 50 “innovative, bright minds” selected to move to Morgantown. Pectyo told me he hopes to be among them.
Pectyo and his wife, a data scientist, began to think about moving their two children when the pandemic showed they could work remotely without disrupting their careers. Registered Democrats, they considered Portland and Charlotte. But Pectyo, who had lived in West Virginia when he went to Marshall University, suggested Morgantown.
“The state doesn’t offer much to the younger generation, so you have to leave, and when you leave, you leave this massive hole in the state, and you feel guilty,” he told me. “I want to be part of the change and go back.”
Whether the experimental program (and one like it in Charleston that promises $5,000 to remote workers willing to relocate) will lure entrepreneurially inclined high-earners who will stay long enough to actually make an impact on the economy remains to be seen. Similar programs are playing out in places like Indiana, Michigan and Oklahoma with some early but encouraging results. But in the heart of Appalachia, a place still reeling from decades of exploitation by outside corporations, the Ascend program has triggered a familiar feeling of betrayal. Why, ask skeptical local leaders, isn’t the program focused on keeping current residents from leaving rather than looking to replace them?
It’s hard for people like Joe Gouzd, president of United Steelworkers Local 8-957, to not take the state’s excitement around the new recruiting program personally.
“We didn’t detach from West Virginia,” Gouzd said. “They’re detaching from us.”
Danielle Walker, a Democrat who represents Morgantown in the state House of Delegates, had come to provide moral support for the Viatris workers. Sitting on the hotel suite’s couch, eating a quick lunch of a pre-packaged salad, the only Black woman in the state legislature fumed to me that providing coworking spaces and other professional development benefits would create a new form of redlining in her city, where out-of-towners get access to better housing, internet and opportunities and her constituents — many of them, like McCormick, self-proclaimed "Trump guys" — would be left further behind.
“I don’t want to hear anything about ‘Ascend’ when my people are descending,” Walker told me. “What do we think these people are going to come and do for us? We have people who have lived here for generations and generations who are hungry and can’t get a livable wage or health care. When are we ever going to take care of our own?”
On the campaign trail in 2016, Trump promised to take care of West Virginians. He spoke to a packed Charleston Civic Center where supporters still in their neon striped work uniforms waved signs that read “Trump digs coal.” He put on a miner’s hat and pantomimed digging with an invisible shovel to roars of applause. “We’re going to put the miners back to work. We’re going to get those mines open,” Trump said between boasts about his polling and ticket sales. “If I win, we’re going to bring those miners back.”
What Trump promised was always hard to believe based on the evidence; about 40 minutes west of the Viatris plant, a coal mine will close in August, leaving another 200 people unemployed.
But his anti-regulation, anti-elites message suggested that nothing really had to change for the state to escape the economic dead end it had found itself in. Trump went on to win West Virginia with nearly 70 percent in both the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, all but branding the state as “Trump Country.”
But six months have passed since Trump left office, and it is clear the state is no better off than when he first appeared, and in some important ways it has fallen farther behind. While Trump maintains a philosophical hold on a portion of the voting populace that still adores him, even his most prominent supporters in state government now recognize that Trumpism offers no viable solutions for reversing the state’s decline and are throwing their weight behind forward-looking programs like Ascend WV, which promote the appeal of some of the most liberal parts of the state where the partisan culture wars that Trump has pushed are least popular.
The message is clear: Improving conditions in red state West Virginia, it turns out, could mean making it look a little more like the bluest parts of the rest of the country.
For too long, West Virginia has made it at the top of the wrong lists.
A devastating opioid epidemic, an HIV crisis compounded by the state’s resistance to progressive needle exchange programs, the greatest prevalence of heart disease and diabetes. The sixth highest poverty rate in the country; the third slowest broadband internet connections; consistently near the bottom for things like educational attainment and teacher pay.
And for too long, this litany of problems has defined young West Virginians’ so-called “struggle to stay,” both hastening their desire to escape and burdening them with guilt once they do.
I know because I’m one of the thousands who left. I grew up in Kanawha County, a place ominously nicknamed “Chemical Valley,” where, in 2014, 10,000 gallons of a coal-cleaning chemical leaked into our drinking water — a scare that has my friends and family still distrustful of what comes out of their taps and the municipal officials whose job it is to keep the water safe.
I graduated from West Virginia University in 2012 and spent a few years working at the Charleston Gazette in the state capital before a merger with the Mail, bankruptcy and layoffs. Then, I left for California. I wanted to get my master’s degree in creative nonfiction, and I thought the Golden State was the best place to do it. Before I ever started a class, though, I wound up reporting at the Fresno Bee, sucked back into the stressful magic of a newsroom in a brand-new city. Like a lot of my friends who had left before me, I was moving for opportunities that didn’t seem to exist back home.
Recently, I returned to West Virginia for nearly a month to visit family and take stock of the place I moved to when I was 13 but will always consider my home state, a place my parents and their parents were born and raised. It's a place I love deeply and have found myself fiercely protective of. I’m no longer ashamed of my hint of an accent and am quick to correct Californians’ mispronunciation of Appalachia (FYI: It’s app-uh-LATCH-uh.) When I talk to people about West Virginia, I tell them that it always smells like rain. That everyone will offer you warm and buttery food. And that strangers will call you “baby,” but not in the way that makes you mad. But despite all that, the “struggle to stay” for young people is so ingrained in West Virginia’s culture that there’s even merchandise. To celebrate West Virginia Day in late June, a Charleston T-shirt shop released an “ex-pat” design that says: “I used to live in West Virginia, ask me about it,” adorned with a key and U-Haul. On the store’s website, the Kin Ship Goods owners explain: “This one is for all yall who have left. Maybe you’ll come back one day.”
Brad Smith was one of those who came back. Sort of.
He grew up in Kenova, W.Va., a place known for the pumpkin house, and after graduating from Marshall University in 1986, he immediately moved to Michigan for graduate school and landed his first job as a senior account manager for Pepsi. Smith rose to become CEO of Intuit, the software giant known for programs like TurboTax. He stepped down as CEO in 2018 but still lives in Silicon Valley, and has a home at the Greenbrier Resort, the lavish golf course near Lewisburg, W.Va. owned by Jim Justice, the state’s billionaire governor. Smith has made his home state the primary focus of his philanthropy. He donated $35 million to his alma mater. And last year, he gave $25 million to WVU, one of the largest donations in the school’s history, to create the Brad and Alys Smith Outdoor Economic Development Collaborative, partnering with his wife to bankroll the whole Ascend program.
The initial idea for the program emerged in 2019, after West Virginia was unsuccessful in courting the new Amazon headquarters (it went to Arlington County in Virginia). Smith started thinking about courting workers instead. He researched similar programs, such as Tulsa Remote, and one in Ireland, a place that has shown some success in reversing its “brain drain.”
Smith’s team started making the rounds, figuring out the best way to advertise what became Ascend. And it wasn’t hard. The West Virginia Department of Tourism wanted in. WVU President Gordon Gee wanted in. The governor wanted in.
At a news conference in April, Justice announced the launch of the program alongside a bill signing of legislation that overhauls the state’s corporate income tax law that he said would make West Virginia “the most attractive state in the nation for remote workers and for all businesses.”
A joyful Justice called West Virginians “frogs proud of their own pond” and labeled Ascend the No. 1 remote worker relocation program in the nation. “We’ve all known that we were the most attractive state, now all we’re doing is capitalizing on the world looking at West Virginia as that diamond in the rough that they missed,” he said at the program’s reveal.
The idea is that West Virginia can become “the start-up state,” Smith explains to me on a call from his home in Menlo Park, Calif. If you can incentivize ambitious, business minded folks to give overlooked West Virginia a chance, they’ll fall in love with the place and stay for good, setting off a domino effect to jumpstart the state economy by creating new businesses and hiring locally, all while giving back to the state in tax dollars along the way and reversing the population decline.
And the pool of remote workers is tenfold what it was before the pandemic now that employers everywhere are changing the way they view office work, which could mean high earners will consider a place with a low cost of living where their money can go further — like West Virginia.
A key selling point for Smith is that Ascend participants won’t be competing for local jobs; they already have jobs elsewhere. Instead, they’ll be spending their money locally, engaging with the community and seeing a place they never would have given a chance before, Smith says.
“I think the skepticism is understood, it’s earned,” Smith told me. “But this benefits everybody. They’re moving into our communities and they're bringing their talent, their families, their purchasing power. And their income is taxed in our state, which then creates tax funds to invest in infrastructure.”
The idea of rebranding a place in the name of luring in outsiders to stimulate the local economy has an encouraging track record.
Prithwiraj Choudhury, a professor at Harvard Business School who studies remote work, believes programs like Ascend can have a positive long-term impact for host cities and will be a “game changer” for places like West Virginia.
The Tulsa Remote program, operated by the George Kaiser Family Foundation, has shown payoff in both income tax revenue, projecting a boost of $1.4 million in 2020, and in community engagement; many of the 300-some participants continue to volunteer locally, according to Choudhury’s research. Twenty-seven homes have been purchased by Tulsa Remote workers, according to the latest count.
“Work from anywhere is here to stay, and people are going to relocate both permanently and for short durations,” Choudhury said. “I think policy makers and politicians should view this as an opportunity for attracting tech workers and future entrepreneurs.”
That focus on making outsiders happy, though, is at the root of the criticism of programs like Ascend.
“It doesn’t address people who live here and the many crises that people in this state are facing, and it sends this message that what would fix the state is if the right kind of people moved here,” said Jessica Wilkerson, an Appalachia history professor at West Virginia University. “It’s not about the people of the state or giving a living wage to the quarter of the population that can’t make ends meet, it’s about recruiting corporations and business types to the state with the idea that they generate jobs.”
Stephen Smith (no relation to Brad Smith) unsuccessfully ran for the Democratic spot in the gubernatorial primary last year and launched West Virginia Can’t Wait, which aims to replace the state’s elected officials without corporate support. Pitching the low cost of living in a state where 16 percent of residents live in poverty and many reported to work in person even during the throes of the pandemic doesn’t sit right with Smith.
He takes issue with “the struggle to stay” — a struggle he says is only for those who can afford to leave — and what he thinks is a misguided solution to it. The state’s focus shouldn’t be on plugging the population gaps, it should be on things like broadband for all and upgrading the state’s roads and infrastructure, he said.
“I think it’s nothing new that the good old boys club in West Virginia thinks that our answers will come from someplace else,” said Smith, of Charleston. “When you've been kicked in the teeth long enough, every now and then you get a little hope that something other than us will save us. But that doesn't mean it’s going to work.”
Ixya Vega’s unlikely love story with West Virginia might be the best indication of whether a program like Ascend can actually work.
Vega, 23, was born and raised 10 minutes outside of the bustling Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. In 2016, she applied to West Virginia University, about 500 miles away, on a whim, after taking to Google to research as many options as she could as a first-generation college student.
“I had never been around so many white people in my life,” laughed Vega, whose parents moved to the U.S. from Guatemala and Mexico. West Virginia’s population is 94 percent white. Vega, a progressive community organizer who works for Planned Parenthood, soon fell in love with West Virginia. She appreciates the mountains and the stillness of her long walks, and she misses it when she visits Chicago. “Coming here was like a breath of fresh air,” she said.
She explains to her skeptical friends from the city that West Virginia isn’t always what you think of when you think of “Trump country.” “People in West Virginia are so willing to take the shirt off their back for someone, even if they don't have the same political ideas.”
Vega graduated with a history degree from WVU last year, and in April, she was elected as a member of the Morgantown City Council. She campaigned on a promise to keep young people like herself from leaving Morgantown.
Sitting at her favorite coffee shop in Morgantown over an iced latte, playing with a necklace that spells her first name in big gold letters, Vega told me that she might have to leave after her two-year council term ends. Her partner, a fellow WVU grad, has dreams of getting into the lucrative Esports business. But opportunities are limited in a state ranked 48th in the country for high-speed internet, according to the latest Federal Communications Commission report. And state officials warn those numbers are actually much worse.
There’s a plan underway to spend an influx of federal coronavirus aid on modernizing the state’s broadband system but West Virginia officials have mishandled the herculean task — a problem compounded by the rural and mountainous terrain — in the past. It won’t be easy, and it’s hard to say how long it will take to see real change.
“It’s really sad because we talk about how when we’re older we want to invest in property here, and retire here,” Vega said. “A lot of young people in West Virginia feel like they have to leave, and then maybe they can come back.”
On one of my last weekends in West Virginia, I went to church with my mawmaw.
It’s an old brick building in my hometown of Chesapeake; a few steps from the tiny house I grew up in and the place of many celebrations, including my own bridal shower. The United Methodist church’s congregation has dwindled to about seven regular attendees, most of them in their 80s. And it was about to lose another member, this time its pastor.
Darick Biondi, 36, took over the diminishing parish in 2016. Trump’s relentless culture war battles made his job harder, as churchgoers became increasingly critical of his more progressive sermons. Biondi, who oversaw three churches, split with many of his congregants on everything from gay rights to mask mandates. (My grandmother’s church was the least confrontational of the three, he told me.)
But Trump, Biondi knows, is not the only one driving the partisan split. The state’s public officials, led by Justice himself, have prioritized issues such as banning transgender student athletes from sports and protecting Confederate monuments that seem designed to perpetuate divisions.
“When I would talk about issues of race, my superior would get calls,” Biondi said. “I was talked to.”
Still, Biondi, who moved to West Virginia from Pennsylvania when he was 9 years old, tries to understand. After getting his Master of Divinity degree at Duke University in 2010, “God called me back to Appalachia,” he said.
“We’ve been beat down so much by people in power that what little power we have we wield very well. Trump spoke to some pain that’s been around for a long, long time,” he said. “The problem is he’s the company owner dressing up like a miner. He is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
For Biondi, “the struggle to stay” meant quitting the ministry entirely. In June, he took to Facebook to announce a “leave of absence,” and changed his profile picture to add a rainbow filter that says “ya’ll means all.”
He told me he would rather be unemployed than feel unable to preach a gospel of inclusivity. The United Methodist Church split over gay rights last year, and a majority of West Virginia’s Methodist churches favored a ban on same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBT clergy.
Biondi, and his wife, who is also a preacher, thought about leaving the state for the more welcoming New England Methodist conference. But they stayed.
In his sermon that Sunday in June, Biondi talked about transitions: his own, the state’s and the nation’s. He tried to politely explain to a quiet, mostly elderly group that his departure is about a debate over “human sexuality” and about letting go of the church’s past and moving into its future. The congregation was silent.
“Lord, meet us where we are,” he prayed.
Ironically, for all of his efforts in supporting Ascend, in one respect, Gov. Justice is undermining the cause with his conservative politics as it tries to recruit newcomers who may find the state’s policies oppressive and dangerous, including a move in May to cut off unemployment benefits for 42,000 West Virginians.
In April, West Virginia went viral for the wrong reasons when MSNBC's Stephanie Ruhle fact checked Justice about a bill he signed to ban transgender students from playing on the sports teams that align with their identity.
“Why would you take your time to do this? Let's talk about other things that I can give you examples of in your state. According to U.S. News and World Report, West Virginia ranks 45th in education, 47th in health care, 48th in the economy, and 50th in infrastructure,” she said.
Pressed to give a single example of a transgender child trying to game West Virginia’s school sports system in order to have an athletic advantage, as Justice said he was concerned about, the governor couldn’t name one.
“I can tell you that we all know what an absolute advantage boys would have playing against girls,” Justice said on the national TV spot.
Brad Smith acknowledges that the image of the state since Trump’s presidency has been frustrating for someone who is trying to recast it.
“While our politics may have painted us a certain way, I would still say if my car broke down anywhere, I would want it to be in West Virginia,” he said. “That’s the version of West Virginia I want the rest of the world to understand. We’re trying to shine a light on the parts that don't get a lot of airtime.”
He denies that Ascend is attempting to rebrand West Virginia into some kind of Blue-state replica. But it’s difficult to avoid that conclusion when the first three hand-picked cities eligible for the program are certainly not the stereotypical Trump Country.
Morgantown — a college town that is closer to Pittsburgh than the West Virginia town I grew up in — is in Monongalia County, which had the smallest percent of Trump voters in the 2020 election at 49 percent. Shepherdstown is also a college town, located inside the richest county in the state, and Lewisburg is near The Greenbrier, Justice’s resort where rooms can run up to $600 a night. While a majority of West Virginia voters voted for Trump last year, both Shepherdstown and Lewisburg are in counties with his lowest support.
During my visit, I tried to see my home state as the Ascend program wants its soon-to-arrive transplants to see it. I went whitewater rafting in the New River; I saw the country’s newest national park at the New River Gorge. I camped at Ace Adventure Resort and hiked in Kanawha State Forest. Even driving along the highway, I was dumbfounded that I ever took the scenery, and the feeling of being perpetually tucked inside a grand valley, for granted.
But it seemed impossible to see my state in only that way. For now, to talk about West Virginia to outsiders is to inevitably deal with Trump. During my visit, Trump was everywhere and nowhere. His name was still on red hats and flying alongside confederate flags and “F— Biden” signs on front porches, but he left West Virginia largely unchanged.
In historian and writer Elizabeth Catte’s book What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, she writes that places like West Virginia have long been used by the rest of the country as a scapegoat. After all, West Virginia alone did not elect Trump. Neither did only blue-collar workers. Catte’s book came out before Ascend was an idea, but she speaks to the heart of West Virginians' concerns about it.
“Defining Appalachian culture is often a top-down process, in which individuals with power or capital tell us who or what we are,” she writes.
Catte writes that Appalachia’s struggle with that “otherness” label from the rest of America started with the War on Poverty and the creation of the well-intentioned Appalachian Regional Commission.
So when I got back to California, I called the new head of ARC to ask her what West Virginia should be.
Gayle Connelly Manchin was named by President Joe Biden as the federal co-chair of the ARC in May. The former first lady of West Virginia, former head of the state school board and wife of Sen. Joe Manchin is the first leader of ARC from the Mountain State. West Virginia is the only one that is entirely enveloped in the Appalachian region.
“The whole theory from Trump and that era was that we don't have to worry about climate change and that coal will be king, and that's what many people in West Virginia wanted to hear,” said Connelly Manchin. “The message that was heard initially was that we can make everything just the way it was 50 years ago, and that was music to their ears. I think they jumped on the bandwagon.”
It’s time to retrain people for new kinds of jobs, Connelly Manchin said, but that doesn’t mean West Virginia has forgotten the coal miners and other hard laborers who served the state for decades.
“People will begin to understand and appreciate that we can’t continue to live in the past, we can’t continue to look back. We’ve got to be where we are, and then move forward,” she said. “I think it will come, I’m optimistic about that.”
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