MORGANTOWN — When corporate real estate departments need a quick assessment of a potential location, one of the statistics they most often look at is the Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), defined as a geographical region with a relatively high population density at its core and close economic ties throughout the area.
Christopher Wilbert, who spends his days selling the greater Morgantown area to potential businesses and employers for Premier Commercial Real Estate Services, said Morgantown’s current MSA — Monongalia and Preston counties — is not only a hindrance to growth locally, but across the region.
That’s why he’s initiating a push to form an new MSA that, he believes, would better represent the entire North Central West Virginia region by adding Marion and Harrison counties, and potentially others, to Monongalia and Preston.
Wilbert said that he speaks with representatives from companies like grocer Trader Joe’s, who dismiss the idea of locating to Morgantown out of hand as the current MSA only includes 130,000 people based on 2010 census data.
“When they look up those numbers, they click Morgantown MSA and see 100,000 people, they’re just flipping the page,” Wilbert said. “But if we went into an MSA that accurately represented the region … at the very least Mon, Marion, Preston and Harrison counties, given all the growth, that would put us up probably around 300,000 people. Then we can really market ourselves as North Central West Virginia and as a submarket of Pittsburgh, which is what we truly are.”
According to a list of the 383 MSAs compiled by the census bureau, the Morgantown MSA is listed at 294 as far as population.
Wilbert said he’s started disseminating information about pushing for this change now as the 2020 census is around the corner. Census data is a major part of what informs the creation and changing of MSAs, which is handled through the U.S. Office of Management and Budget.
Wilbert said he’s started reaching out politicians and stakeholders at the local, state and national level to instigate such a push.
Morgantown Mayor Bill Kawecki said he believes it is something worth at least exploring.
“The benefit of what he is suggesting is very worthwhile. We have been attempting to attract both businesses and activities to this area that this would certainly promote,” Kawecki said. “There’s no question this is something these businesses look at and there’s no doubt we’d like to see some of these kinds of things come to the Morgantown area.”
While Wilbert says the growth of the north central region is one of the reasons why the MSA should be redefined, Kawecki has a bit of a different take, explaining that same growth is proof that a fair number of businesses and employers are settling here.
“I think a lot of people are aware of what this area has to offer. I don’t think we’d have the growth we’re seeing if we weren’t. Certainly we’re within a major portion of the United States population within a couple hours of this location and we’ve got really good access to these areas with our highways,” Kawecki said. “I think we’re being noticed.”
Monongalia County Commission President Tom Bloom said he would need to see additional information about MSAs and the possible impact of making such a change.
“My gut reaction is it sounds like a great idea. I just think we’d need to know more about it and whether that would come with any unintended consequences,” Bloom said of the change. “It makes sense to have Morgantown, Fairmont and Clarksburg together because that’s how we’ve been promoted with the I-79 tech corridor. I think it sounds reasonable, but we’d need to know more about what this entails.”