Morgantown is home to West Virginia University, where enrollment has grown to nearly 30,000, putting a big demand on housing.
Morgantown is home to West Virginia University, where enrollment has grown to nearly 30,000, putting a big demand on housing. iStockphoto.com
Below are the top metropolitan areas with the lowest unemployment rates in December, the latest month available.
Morgantown, W.Va. - 2.7%
Logan, Utah - 2.8%
Bismarck, N.D. - 3.1%
Midland, Texas - 3.1%
Ames, Iowa - 3.2%
Casper, Wyo. - 3.2%
Lincoln, Neb. - 3.3%
Fargo, N.D. - 3.4%
Iowa City, Iowa - 3.4%
Billings, Mont. - 3.5%
Charleston, W.Va. - 3.5%
National December unemployment - 7.2% (7.6% in January)
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
Helped by a growing university population and a building boom, Morgantown, W.Va., has the nation's lowest unemployment rate at 2.7 percent in December — well below the 7.2 percent national rate.
Mountaintop removal mining is a hot topic in West Virginia, but in one part of the state, mountains are moved for a different purpose: Bulldozers carve out the Allegheny foothills for condos and shopping malls in Morgantown.
This city is home to West Virginia University, where enrollment has grown to nearly 30,000, putting a big demand on housing.
Inside a 1970s apartment building, workers are busy renovating the place.
"Morgantown definitely is doing better than the rest of the state, but the state as a whole is doing better than the rest of the country," says developer Chris Ilardi, the building's owner.
Five years ago, the government classified Morgantown as a metropolitan area. National developers then flooded into the market and the population increased to more than 87,000.
Morgantown Mayor Ron Justice says it's difficult to relate to the hardships other places in the nation face now because the local economy is so strong. But then he remembers what happened to his town 15 years ago.
"Sterling Faucet, a large faucet company in the area and nationally, moved from Morgantown to Chicago. We had another company, Morgan Shirt Factory, that closed, and a lot of that went to outsourcing, overseas and other areas of the United States."
When those businesses closed and the mining industry slowed, several thousand jobs disappeared and Morgantown had to reinvent its job market. Justice says that has paid off. Today the largest manufacturer is a pharmaceutical company, and most people work in education or health care.
"We looked at technology to replace some of those manufacturing jobs, as well as the educational and health care components in our community. And as a result, we've seen a big net growth from that period on," Justice says.
While more than 1.3 million people lost jobs nationwide last year, Morgantown created 1,000 jobs, and it's West Virginia's fastest growing economy. But there are downsides: Morgantown has the highest cost of living in the state. Last year the median home price was $190,000, and it's even higher so far this year.
But West Virginia University economist George Hammond says this all could change as the recession continues. "No local economy is an economic island," he says. "We all depend on the economic growth of our trading partners, and Morgantown, even as diversified and dynamic as it is, still faces that fundamental fact."
Coal mining and natural gas drilling helped West Virginia's economy last year, but the energy sector has slowed. Hammond also predicts fewer construction projects, which might help employers, like Ilardi, the developer.
"When you're just looking for laborers, it's still difficult," he says — especially when it comes to hard labor like construction. "When you only have 2.7 percent looking for a job, they're not necessarily looking for a hard job," he says.
Local officials are wary of another problem. They don't want the supply of new homes to outweigh demand, which has contributed to declining housing values in other parts of the country.
Emily Corio reports for West Virginia Public Broadcasting.