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West Virginia's business leaders look to 2022 with optimism, caution after strong start to fiscal year


CHARLESTON, W.Va. (The State Journal) 2021 was a tough year for businesses, with inflation rising and shipping still spotty as the COVID pandemic reaches the two-year mark.

Despite the turbulent year, some officials have a positive outlook for 2022.

“One thing that businesses are experiencing in West Virginia, we are having just a fantastic year financially. Our state finances are in very, very good shape,” said Steve Roberts, president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce. “Many of our long-term debts are being paid now quickly, and our tax revenue is coming in at numbers that far exceed what anybody expected.”

Although New Year’s was just celebrated, the state’s 2022 fiscal year is beginning its third quarter.

“We’re now halfway into the 2022 fiscal year, even though it’s January, because the fiscal year begins in July. So we’ve now got a half year’s results in, and the results are very good,” Roberts said. “What that tells us is that the economy is strong, the economy is recovering.”

With a strong economy, Roberts predicts more consumer spending, boosting business growth even further.

“We expect to see a lot of consumer spending because a lot of people are working. Wages are increasing,” Roberts said. “The good news is that businesses are seeing a big increase in consumer spending.”

In addition to holding things together for an overall successful 2021, the Marion County Chamber of Commerce is looking ahead with hope for 2022.

“Everyone’s trying to be optimistic. Hopefully, 2022 will be a much better year. I know as far as our Chamber goes, we had a great year. We had more new members than we’ve had in the last three years,” Chamber President Shaw said. “We were very lucky and fortunate, and it says a lot, I think, for Marion County that we definitely kept the wheels on the wagon for our businesses through all this.”

Shaw believes that in 2022, Marion County will enjoy more development as a result of some high-powered teamwork.

“I think we’re going to see a lot of new development, even a lot of new manufacturing, enter the picture this year. I think that’s the outcome of a lot of organizations working together,” she said. “You have a city, a county, an economic development agency and a Chamber, and we all work very closely together.”

Like the Marion County Chamber, the Wheeling Area Chamber of Commerce is using teamwork to cultivate a rich business climate in its area for 2022.

“Workforce development is something that we will be seriously working on over the next six to eight months to put a plan together to match vital curriculum to business and industries’ needs,” said Kurt Zende, president of the Wheeling Area Chamber of Commerce.

“For whatever reason, there’s a disconnect, and we’d like to see more of a robust workforce community — an opportunity for the workforce to live in the community and work in the community,” he said.

Zende believes this sense of teamwork will help build a strong foundation for economic development.

“I think there’s a spirit of cooperation that’s happening in our region where entities are combining forces in a partnership,” Zende said. “We are reaching out to other area Chambers in different counties and different states to see what we can do to partner and combine our resources to help our individual membership network and have educational opportunities and those types of things that maybe they wouldn’t get with an individual Chamber.”

The goal of the cooperation is to bring in more businesses, he said.

“We’re trying to strengthen the business community from the inside out, and we feel that a stronger business community here might attract outside businesses that see the benefit of being involved in this community with a strong business acumen,” Zende said.

Zende also looks to 2022 with optimism, assuming that the pandemic wanes.

“I think that, God willing, once COVID has finally shed its negative impact, I just see nothing but a bright future, especially in this area. I’m hopeful that the gas and oil industry would come back to fruition,” he said.

Zende points toward a particular issue that is currently a problem but could soon be converted into a great opportunity.

“It seems to me that there has been an openness toward remote offices that have seemed to help businesses reduce their costs,” he said. “It might not help the community or a landlord of a property, a business or building owner, but it seems like there are more and more vacant office spaces that quite honestly we might have an opportunity to convert those office spaces into potential retail spaces in the future.”

Zende’s office-to-retail conversion plan would theoretically condense sales companies as well.

“It would be great to continue to see businesses lower their costs and continue to have a vibrant business community, but then take what was old and that old way of doing things,” Zende said. “You could maybe come up with a business incubator where you have a couple receptionists and have a place for people to hang their hats.”

Officials agree that one of the biggest concerns for businesses in the new year is the COVID pandemic as it drags on.

“Everyone or mostly all our businesses are watching closely what’s happening with this new COVID variant and watching the spread of it,” Marion County’s Shaw said.

“All businesses are still concerned about the Coronavirus and its variants. That can affect whether customers come in the door, it can affect whether you have a workforce,” Roberts said.

In addition to the definite health concerns, part of the battle is trying to predict the ever-changing climate caused by the pandemic.

“To me COVID is the biggest uncertainty going forward because we don’t know how bad it’s going to get. ... Things are already closing down and being canceled,” said Catherine Goings, owner of the Wicked Sisters Boutique in Clarksburg, of the recent Omicron-fueled resurgence.

Another factor that is concerning for officials is the rampant inflation that has been steadily increasing, more rapidly since September.

“My concern as a small business owner is the inflation that is occurring right now,” Goings said. “I’m already receiving notice from my vendors about price increases for merchandise in 2022.”

“I think the second thing on the minds of probably consumers and businesses is inflation,” Roberts said.

Officials also point to the infamous supply chain breakdowns that caused worry for the 2021 holiday season and left grocery store shelves patchy.

“The supply chain is also an issue. Many people in West Virginia have experienced going into the grocery store to find that the product they’re looking for is not available,” Roberts said.

“We’re all surviving that. It’s a little bit inconvenient and a little bit unsettling.”

Despite the many complications that have arisen as a result of the pandemic, officials believe that businesses will at least be ready if the new variant is a big issue.

“I feel like if things have to change in our county or North Central West Virginia, they’re going to be much better prepared this time and not caught off guard like most of them were the last time,” Shaw said. “So if there’s any silver lining in this, it’s that we’ve done this, we know what to do and we know how to get through it.”

Story by Josiah Cork of The State Journal

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