Marshall, WVU presidents collaborate to bring economic development to W.Va.

West Virginia University President E. Gordon Gee (left) and Marshall University President Jerome Gilbert take a selfie during their discussion on improving economic development in West Virginia. (Twitter Image)

The two men who lead the largest educational institutions in West Virginia met Wednesday to discuss the ways the universities can bring economic development to the Mountain State.

Marshall University President Jerome Gilbert and West Virginia University President E. Gordon Gee were hosted by The Huntington Regional Chamber of Commerce in an effort to collaborate and discuss economic opportunities.

“The main goal of yesterday’s meeting was for Presidents Gee and Gilbert to talk about the importance of collaboration of the state’s two largest institutions to help economic development in our state,” said Marshall spokeswoman Ginny Painter.

For years the two institutions have been marked by their competition, with many West Virginians identifying by one school or the other.

“There are times where we should collaborate, and there are times where we should compete,” said chamber president Bill Bissett. “But at the end of the day it’s important for all of us as West Virginians for both of those institutions to be successful.”

The meeting was moderated by Bissett, with other government and university officials in attendance, including representatives from Sens. Manchin and Capito as well as Rep. Evan Jenkins.

WVU has commissioned the McKinsey Global Institute, a think tank that seeks to develop an understanding of the evolving global economy, to conduct a study to find what West Virginia needs to help stimulate the economy, with Marshall being a collaborator on the project.

“The findings will be presented to state policymakers, and will include recommendations about specific industry sectors to pursue any policy changes that are needed,” Painter said. “The plan is for higher education to take the lead in many of the initiatives that come out of the McKinsey report.”

President Gilbert discussed some of Marshall’s own initiatives, including his interest in developing something of a “business incubator” in downtown Huntington.

Bisset said he believes Gilbert “has a very aggressive agenda into business development, into creating a business incubator in this region.” The chamber president said Gilbert’s agenda is similar to the work of Innovation Depot, an institution he, the president and the president’s delegation became familiar with in Birmingham, Alabama.

Innovation Depot seeks to give entrepreneurs competitive advantages. In 2016, the organization had 102 member companies with $126 million in gross sales.

“They literally grow new businesses,” said Bissett.

While both Gilbert and Gee discussed specific ways they hope to see the economy develop, they also addressed the culture and perceptions of West Virginia.

“Some of it is changing the external perceptions of W.Va.; that it is a good place to do work, that it is prime real estate as far its location in the United States, and that it has some of the best and brightest here,” Bisset said. “Conversely, we have to convince ourselves of that, too.”

Franklin Norton can be reached at no[email protected]