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Justice unveils new statewide remote work program, signs W.Va. corporate tax reform bill

CHARLESTON — Gov. Jim Justice joined Intuit executive, co-founder of the Wing 2 Wing Foundation, and West Virginia native Brad Smith and his wife, Alys, to unveil a new statewide remote work program during a press conference Monday morning.

“We have expanded tourism phenomenally in the last few years,” Justice said. “We have been the frogs that are now really, truly proud of their own pond. And in all of that, now we go to another step.”

Justice said that next step would include the launch of Ascend WV, the remote work program supported by Brad and Alys Smith. Justice expressed hope that a combination of the remote work program and the state’s broadband connectivity development efforts will bring more people to West Virginia.

“I’m proud to say that our great state, little old West Virginia, has really become a national and international leader. We’ve had a lot of publicity over the last year as the governor has led us to headlines about our response to COVID and our vaccine distribution — but it’s not just that. West Virginia is making headlines as an innovative state,” said Secretary Chelsea Ruby of the Department of Tourism.

The launch of the program comes just six months after the Smiths’ $25 million gift to West Virginia University’s Brad and Alys Smith Outdoor Economic Development Collaborative. Since that gift, the Smiths have collaborated with the West Virginia Department of Tourism and the West Virginia Department of Economic Development to develop a program that reflects the missions of all three initiatives.

The Ascend WV workforce recruitment program offers $12,000 in relocation and retention incentives, a year’s worth of free outdoor activities and gear rentals, access to state-of-the art co-working facilities, and a choice of three original host cities: Morgantown, Shepherdstown and Lewisburg.

Ascend WV participants will also have access to continuing education programs, including a remote worker certification program through WVU’s John Chambers College of Business and Economics, and will be part of an effort called StartUp West Virginia. This effort includes Virgin Hyperloop, the National Weather Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Big Data Program, Toyota, sustainable farming, and biomedical research.

Brad Smith said that four major worldwide trends have created the ideal environment for Ascend WV. He said the first trend is an increased focus and investment in entrepreneurial education; the second trend is an increased emphasis on designed thinking and experiential learning; the third is a trend toward remote working — a trend that was already recognized prior to the COVID-19 pandemic but has noticeably increased since the pandemic began — and the fourth trend is a shift in geographic preference from urban settings to rural ones.

“Here, West Virginia sits in the middle of this intersection as we cultivate this next generation of entrepreneurs who are the descendants of the great mountaineers who learned how to blaze trails instead of follow paths — the very DNA of an entrepreneur,” Brad Smith said. “We’re surrounded by these amazing mountains, and these rivers, and these trails, that once served as walls, but they now serve as welcome signs as rural becomes the new urban. We are experiencing an unparalleled alignment of interests between West Virginia natives who come back and give back; between our elected officials at the federal, state and the local level reaching across the aisle; between our educational institutions — everyone leaning in, seizing this moment, and partnering together.”

Assistant Dean of Smith OEDC, Danny Twilley, spoke at the press conference. Twilley said that the purpose of Ascend WV’s extensive relocation package, whose total value amounts to over $20,000, is to ease the transition for participants and to put programs in place to welcome participants and to build community for them.

“This is fulfilling what we hold so dear at West Virginia University, which is this idea of continuing to grow as individuals and professionals,” Twilley said. 

Also in attendance at the event was WVU President E. Gordon Gee. He said that, as a “twice born-again West Virginian,” he is grateful for all the state has done for him. He said while West Virginia has been facing economic issues — issues that have only been worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic — for some time, opportunity can be found within the state’s struggles.

“It takes … an especially acute vision to unveil those opportunities, and we are fortunate to have people who have been laser-focused on the innovative solutions that lurk among all of our problems. No one fits that description better than Brad [Smith],” Gee said.

Gee said that the state’s post-pandemic “next normal” will include more remote workers than ever before. For those workers, West Virginia will offer a breath of fresh air with less crowds and traffic, and a better quality of life.

He said the Ascend WV will leverage West Virginia’s outdoor assets to bring fresh talent to the state and that he believes the program aligns perfectly with the university’s land-grant mission.

Justice also signed HB 2026 during the press conference. The bill was designed to reform West Virginia’s corporate tax structure to allow the state to “attract and retain” remote workers. The bill was previously passed by the West Virginia Senate and House of Delegates.

“It’s a bold step toward making West Virginia the most-attractive state 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,” Justice said.

The application window for Ascend WV’s first 50 spots in Morgantown is now open. The application windows for the host cities of Shepherdstown and Lewisburg have yet to be announced.

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