Other speakers offered a variety of potential prescriptions for diversifying the state's economy, including efforts to increase scientific research and enhance the state's technology sector and proposals to grow the agriculture sector by better marketing of locally produced food.
Anne Barth, executive director of TechConnectWV, said West Virginia remains far behind nearby states like Ohio and Pennsylvania in funding to assist entrepreneurs from initial development through commercialization of new products.
Scott Rotruck, who retired recently as a Chesapeake Energy vice president, said the state should do more to improve energy efficiency, a move that would help the environment, create jobs, and save money. Ballard agreed, saying that some West Virginians wrongly leave their lights on all the time, thinking doing so burns more coal and thus helps the state's economy.
Many speakers touted the benefits of the Marcellus Shale boom, endorsing the Center on Budget and Policy's efforts to promote setting aside a portion of natural gas taxes for future economic diversity efforts.
Ted Boettner, executive director of the center, said that if West Virginia had created such a "future fund" several decades ago, it could be sitting on a nearly $8 billion reserve for education, infrastructure and economic efforts. And Richardson outlined the results of Union of Concerned Scientists polling that shows strong support among state residents for a "future fund," even if creating it also involves increasing taxes on the coal industry.
"There is apparently quite a disparity between what voters say they want and what politicians think voters want," said Kent Spellman, executive director of the West Virginia Community Development Hub. "This is a conversation that is just too important to put aside."
Charleston lawyer Tom Heywood touted numerous improvements -- new schools, a stronger state budget, improved college attendance rates and better early childhood programs -- since what he called the state's "functional insolvency" when Democrat Gaston Caperton took over the governor's office from Republican Arch Moore in 1989.
But Heywood said state residents and political leaders still suffer from a collective sense of low self-esteem and low expectations. He noted the state's chronic poverty, low educational attainment and serious drug-abuse problems.
"We accept second-class status," Heywood said. "We accept things about ourselves that we should not accept."
On the drug abuse problem, Kenny Perdue, president of the state AFL-CIO, said he's convinced the state needs to do more than push for drug testing of workers and jobseekers -- but also provide more and better help for those who develop drug problems.
"We have to find a way to clean these people up and get them back into the workforce," Perdue said. "We can't just throw them to the wolves. I don't think we have the serious treatment effort that we need."
Rev. Jeff Allen, executive director of the West Virginia Council of Churches, said it was a victory just to have Wednesday's meeting, because "no one thought we could have a discussion about economic diversity in West Virginia because it would be perceived as anti-coal."
Moving forward, Allen said it's important to be sure that all state residents have an opportunity to have their say, so that communities can design their own economic futures.
"It's not about getting a slice of the pie," Allen said. "It's about having a say in the kind of pie."
And Kristen Barker, president of a Cincinnati-based industrial cooperative program modeled on the Mondragon Worker-Owner Cooperative from Spain, said she noticed that West Virginians at Wednesday's meeting talked a lot about finding ways to get new businesses to move into West Virginia.
"You've talked about all the things you can do to got people to come here," she said. "I would instead think about how awesome the state is and how you have everything you need right here. The power is right here."
@tag:Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.