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WVU President Gee visits The Dominion Post to talk about Ascend WV, revitalizing West Virginia

MORGANTOWN – WVU President Gordon Gee visited The Dominion Post this week to talk about WVU and expand on the Ascend WV initiative announced earlier this month.

“This has been one challenging year – running a university in the middle of a pandemic,” Gee said. There were actually several pandemics occurring at once: The COVID pandemic, the structural issues around racism and other social problems that flared up during COVID, and the devastating impact on mental health.

On the last issue, WVU is launching the Healthy Minds project to focus on the mental health of students, Gee said.

WVU hopes to return to normal in the fall. At this point they wont be requiring students to get vaccines.

“We’re going to encourage them mightily,” he said.

Turning to economic initiatives, he said, “We want to turn from coal to cool,” to reinvent West Virginia and its economic structure.

As previously reported, the Ascend WV remote 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.

The goal, Gee said, is to offer a reason for expatriates to return and for others to come. “We think this initiative is going to be very powerful.” After it was announced, it exploded quickly, with more than 5,000 applications and approaching 100,000 inquiries – all for 50 initial openings, though more will be offered.

Gee responded to a question about why this program isn’t being offered to people who are already here, to keep them here. He offered several reasons.

One is that people who will move for $12,000 are young – 30-somethings – interested in growing themselves and their careers. Ascend WV is intended to draw people who will come and create jobs that will motivate others to stay.

“If you’re afraid to take risk, then you’re going to continue to be West Virginia,” he said. We need to be looking to provide affordable housing and work and recreation opportunities. “How do we use our resources to truly attract people? Any time you’re driven by the fear of success, you’ve asked the wrong question.”

Accompanying Gee was Danny Twilley, assistant dean of the Brad and Alys Smith Outdoor Economic Development Collaborative, which is tied to Ascend WV.

Twilley talked about the shift in how people are deciding where to live and work – lifestyle comes first, job second. West Virginia’s hills and recreation offer the ideal home for remote workers.

Denver, Ashville, N.C., and Utah’s Silicon Slope are all examples of places that lure talented workers because of their lifestyle offerings. “That’s what we started putting together,” a means to leverage the state’s resources for the same type of opportunities.

WVU, Twilley said, has leased and is renovating the Cardello building downtown on University Avenue as its remote worker hub for Ascend WV. It will be the place for them to work and socialize, to have easy access to downtown restaurants and shops, and to take advantage of the Monongahela River and its attractions. “It’s all about bonding and that core human value of belonging.”

Morgantown is the first of three cities that will receive what he calls a cohort of remote workers: 50 of the 5,000-plus applicant will be chosen. Those who aren’t can await an opening in another city or await a shot at one of the next three planned Morgantown cohorts: 75 people in the second, 100 each in the third and fourth.

Expansion will be community and capacity driven, he said, “As we learn, we’ll adapt and evolve along the way.”

He’s enthusiastic about its promise. “Morgantown is so ripe, this state is so ripe to take advantage of this. … It’s not an overnight piece, this is 20 years of work. … This idea of the remote worker program is kind of the tip of the iceberg.”

While only a fraction of the applicants will get spots in the programs in the three cities, Gee said, they won’t be ignored. It will be like bringing students to WVU. “Not everyone gets a scholarship, but we’re going to recruit all of them.”

TWEET David Beard @dbeardtdp EMAIL