That quote from Jeff James of Create WV are the words with which reporter Bill Lynch of the Charleston Gazette chose to close his recent story about the upcoming Create WV conference.
Bill Lynch is a good reporter but I think he buried the lead.
If the goal of Jeff James and Create WV is to "help West Virginians participate more in the Innovation Economy which thrives on a creative class made up of artists, musicians, technology workers and entrepreneurs" as the article says, we need to start with understanding why our children have left West Virginia and why they continue to leave and how to make West Virginia the kind of place where the creative class wants to buy a house, start a business, invent something and raise a family. It is my contention that until we have that conversation we cannot change the culture that makes West Virginia repel rather than attract the creative class.
As long as West Virginia continues to elect city council members, mayors, state representatives, state senators, governors and other office holders who watched their own children leave the state and didn't try to understand why they left, we will continue to be a state that loses its talent to geographies with a culture that is inviting to the creative class.
Teenagers, twentysomethings and thirtysomethings know and understand why their creative contemporaries leave West Virginia. We need to ask them to explain it to us. Current office holders don’t. Study after study shows that creatives flee monochrome, parochial, insular and misoneist environments for more diverse and stimulating environments. Creatives want to live in places with artsy, independent film theaters and the kinds of “third spaces/third places” where they might engage with other outside-the-box thinkers. Young creatives who might invent something want raise their families in stimulating places. Young creatives tire of trying to explain “the culture thing” to city council members, mayors and other elected officials who think economic development is all about luring companies here with tax breaks or “selling” West Virginia’s natural beauty. Titular leaders who don’t understand why young creatives leave can’t turn on the magnet that makes them stay.
James is right when he says that "most people in the state look toward established businesses, like the mining industry or state government" rather than entrepreneurship or innovation but let us not pretend that the culture change we need can come from the private sector alone.
If the current elected leaders will not start the conversation about why our kids leave and why they won't be here to benefit from changes Create WV wants to bring then we need to elect people whose own kids haven't left yet, people who will ask their kids how they would change the state to make it the kind of place in which they would like to raise a family, start a business or invent something. Private industry cannot overhaul the culture of West Virginia without the help of government. Until we are electing office holders who want to change the culture of our state, conferences aimed at budding entrepreneurs will be little more than networking events where the same people who have been swapping business cards for 5 years do it yet again.
Yes, Mr. James, what we do we do for our kids but the question is, without the culture change we need to keep them in West Virginia, will our kids be here to benefit from the changes we seek to make? You said in your Gazette interview that in its first 4 years Create Wv sought to engage leaders but now you wish to focus "on the individual level with people who want to be entrepreneurs". Does that mean it's OK with you if elected leaders don't show up for the conference or if elected leaders don't understand why our future leaves the state when they graduate from college? Do you really think West Virginia can privatize the change we need? I know it's fashionable to pretend that we don't need government and that government doesn't create jobs or anything else but the truth is that government still controls most of the institutions and programs and most of the money and must be part of the solution to West Virginia's brain drain.