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Dylan Vidovich | HD Media

Gubernatorial candidate Ben Salango-D stops for a photo during a campaign stop in Logan in December 2019.

CHARLESTON – Gubernatorial candidate Ben Salango-D believes that Boone County serves a role in the future economic development of West Virginia.

“We have great people in southern West Virginia and I am from there and I’ve always expressed my pride in being from there,” Salango said. “We must focus on providing opportunities. One of our biggest problems is population decline. That is a direct result of lack of opportunity for young adults.”

The candidate said that we must focus on education, infrastructure and vocational training opportunities.

“Beyond that, we’ve got to develop that Hobet mine site in Boone County,” he said. “When our kids come out of high school, that goes a long way in inspiring them to stay here. When I came out of high school in 1991, I could go to college and pay for it myself or go into the coal mines. I was one of the first in my family not to go underground. I’m very vocal of my support for our coal miners and their families. We have to make a commitment to developing our infrastructure including broadband, economic development and cellular connectivity. I am absolutely committed to helping southern West Virginia. If we don’t invest in ourselves and our people, we’re going to continue to be left behind.”

Salango, 47 said that the potential for developing the former mine site is great and most often, the project is categorized incorrectly.

“It is a southern West Virginia project but as an economic driver, it is a West Virginia project,” he said. “This is incredibly important for the state due to the tremendous revenue potential and if we don’t make the initial investment, we’ll never benefit from a return. We have Roads to Prosperity money to develop that infrastructure, we have hard-working people looking for change, opportunity and jobs.”

In 2017, the Justice administration said that it was planning a $30 million upgrade to the existing road at the site. The state Division of Highways sold $58 million in Garvee bonds for the highway that same year.

In December of 2019, Gov. Jim Justice announced that the state had sold $600 million in general obligation state road bonds and generated more than $746 million in the process. Justice stated that in the two years since the start of the program that more than 500 major projects had been completed, covering more than 1,000 miles of roadways.

On Oct. 23, Gov. Justice held a press conference on the site to announce that he was committing approximately $39 million to the project.

Salango said that he feels the project has been all but forgotten at the state level and that the timing of the development was questionable – just days from the General Election.

“Jim Justice killed this project in 2017,” he said. “I’ve made the Hobet project the centerpiece of my economic development plans for southern West Virginia. He turned his back on the people of southern West Virginia and is now backtracking because I’ve called him out on it. Jim Justice is making promises he doesn’t intend to keep.”

Salango expressed his vision for what the “Rock Creek Development” project can be. He addressed local concerns that the site would eventually be converted into the state’s largest working landfill.

“This is an opportunity to make shovel-ready sites for manufacturing and tourism,” he said. “If I am your governor, I assure you that will not be a landfill. It will be an area where we can provide good paying jobs for the families of our people. Having that land sit there empty right now is an absolute waste.”

The site has been occupied by the West Virginia National Guard for over three years but earlier this month, they said publicly they are pulling out. On Oct. 23, Justice announced they were staying.

“Southern West Virginia drove this state for decades and let us not forget that,” he said. “The coal that came out of here built America. It is unfortunate that many people in this state, including our governor have turned their back on it. You can drive for hours in southern West Virginia and not have cell phone service. We have a lack of sewer service and even water. This is unacceptable and we’re going to fix it. You must have a leader that understands we have priorities outside of his businesses. We need a leader with new ideas and energy to tackle what should have already been done.”

Salango sees a stable of industries for southern counties, not a save-all approach hung on the pillars of a singular source.

“We must be truly diversified and I’ll be clear, I’ll never turn my back on coal miners,” Salango said. “I’m from a family of miners. I understand the important role coal has played. I also understand that we need other opportunities for their kids. The coal miners that I speak to express that to me. We have less coal mines open now than when Jim Justice took office and we have 10 to 15 percent fewer coal mining jobs as well. Let’s be honest – a coal baron is not going to save southern West Virginia.”

Salango feels that his experience in economic development serving as a Kanawha County Commissioner builds on a diverse resume.

“I’m a small business owner and I understand the obstacles that come with that,” he said “We need someone who understands big and small business and how they overlap for the sake of progress.”

Salango has produced a regional economic development plan that is available for consumption on his campaign web site. He cites that timely action is at the forefront.

“The quickest thing that we can do involves tourism,” he said. “A relatively low-dollar investment can bring considerable return. We must continue to market and develop the Hatfield McCoy Trails as you see business develop around those trail heads. I’m a big proponent of hunting and fishing in relation to tourism. We need to bring people here for these things. West Virginia has a lot to offer in terms of our amazing people, our scenery and the potential for outdoor activities. We have to be able to market it and bring people in.”

He added, “You can only recruit new business like what we have available at Hobet with a high-energy governor who is working non-stop to find opportunities for our state. We must have a governor who is committed to fixing our bridges and roads. You can’t bring in new industry if your roads are terrible and the bridges we must cross on the way to work are in need of repair.”

The gubernatorial candidate said that one of the most important elements is cell phone service, broadband and reliable, strong internet.

“We are lacking connectivity,” he said. “We must address this now. That will help with recruitment and retainment. An important part of our economic growth is long-term recovery options for our people. We are leading the nation in opioid overdoses and now we must lead the nation in recovery and vocational opportunities for our people who are suffering.”

The attorney said that he feels his plan outlined on his web site called “West Virginia Recovery First” puts two arms around the opioid addiction crisis and offers attainable relief for the state.

“I developed the plan through talking to experts from across the nation who understand what West Virginia is going through,” he said. “We must be aggressive and to bring in new industry, we must have workers who can pass a drug test. We have to provide hope for our people.”

Visit bensalango.com for more information on the candidate and to view his economic plan.

Reporter Phil Perry can be reached at pperry@hdmediallc.com or at 304-307-2401.