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HUNTINGTON — On her second day on the job, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development Alejandra Castillo came to Huntington to announce that the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration is awarding $2.65 million in grants to support business development and workforce training efforts in West Virginia.

“The work that we do to support the growth of West Virginia’s manufacturing sector is critical to the economic future of this great state,” Castillo said in her opening remarks at the Robert C. Byrd Institute on Tuesday morning. “President Biden is committed to supporting communities as they recover and build back better from the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic and work to diversify and expand their economies.”

Castillo was joined by U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., to announce EDA grant investments to Generation West Virginia, Advantage Valley and Future of Nursing West Virginia.

Castillo said Advantage Valley, based in Charleston, will receive a $1.3 million grant to provide technical assistance to manufacturing, engineering and other businesses in a nine-county region to build its client bases by connecting it with new external markets and expanding regional supply chains.

“This EDA grant will be matched with $348,000 in local funds and is expected to help create 143 jobs, retain 184 jobs and generate $10.7 million in private investment,” she said.

Castillo said the project is being funded under the Assistance to Coal Communities initiative, through which EDA awards funds on a competitive basis to assist communities severely impacted by the declining use of coal. Assistance to Coal Communities projects support economic diversification, job creation, capital investment, workforce development and re-employment opportunities, she said.

Terrell Ellis, executive director of Advantage Valley, said the funds will support the organization’s Expanding Markets Initiative. She said through this program, 225 companies in the Charleston-Huntington metro region will receive technical services to expand access to new markets.

“Advantage Valley’s existing businesses are the region’s most important economic asset, and that is why our Expanding Markets team is here to support their growth and expansion. This program will help companies identify new customer opportunities, gain access to new market areas, as well as improve supply chain connections within our region. Nurturing locally owned businesses that employ local workers with living wages is essential to creating a sustainable economy,” Ellis said. “We are very grateful for our partnership with EDA, who understands the importance of regional collaboration. Our economic development organizations have worked hard to foster that spirit of collaboration in our region, and that’s why EDA’s support is so meaningful.”

Castillo announced the second grant award to Generation West Virginia, also based in Charleston, which will receive $762,350 to expand its NewForce program.

“NewForce is a tuition-free, remote, team-based intensive tech training program that equips graduates with in-demand software development skills and direct access to in-demand jobs,” said Generation West Virginia’s executive director Natalie Roper.

This EDA grant, to be matched with $260,520 in local funds, is expected to create 81 jobs and generate $600,000 in private investment, she said.

“We hear from too many young people (in West Virginia) that feel they have to leave in order to find a fulfilling career,” Roper said. “We know that it doesn’t have to be that way, because at the same time we are hearing from employers in West Virginia that they have great jobs available right now, but are having trouble finding people to fill those jobs.”

Roper said the funds will be used to build on the success of the program.

“Since 2019, we have graduated 56 students and placed 86% of them in jobs within six months of graduation,” she said. “Our graduates are making an average salary of $46,000 a year … which is above the state’s median income, and 100% of our graduates are placed at West Virginia-based companies, so they’re training and staying here and filling jobs here. We have placed our graduates at 17 different tech companies across the state. So over the next three years with this grant we’re excited to expand the network of employers even further and widen the scope of job opportunities for our graduates. We are also going to ride this wave of opportunity with remote work and plan to build new partnerships with those both inside and outside of the state.”

Castillo announced the third grant to Future of Nursing West Virginia, another Charleston-based organization, which will receive $592,000 to expand the West Virginia Nursing Entrepreneur Program to give nurses the skills they need to launch health-related businesses.

“The project, to be matched with $148,000 in local funds, is expected to create 500 jobs, retain 70 jobs and generate $10 million in private investment,” Castillo said.

“We created a program to teach nurses the business skills needed to open a business,” said Laure Marino, a team leader with Future of Nursing West Virginia. “In the first two years we taught 60 nurses, and 20 of them have opened businesses already across the state. This grant means we can expand our reach. There are almost 40,000 nurses in West Virginia. The potential for new business development and economic impact is huge.”

The Generation West Virginia and Future of Nursing West Virginia projects are being funded under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which provided EDA with $1.5 billion for economic assistance programs to help communities prevent, prepare for and respond to the coronavirus, Castillo said.

“The EDA investments announced today will provide critical technical assistance needed to grow West Virginia businesses and deliver the technical and entrepreneurial training that West Virginians need to create new business and fill in-demand jobs,” she said.

Manchin said the EDA has been an invaluable partner to West Virginia, creating jobs and stimulating economic growth in distressed communities across the state.

“I am thrilled EDA is investing $2.65 million in three programs to create jobs, train workers and spur economic development in the Mountain State,” he said. “I will continue to work with the EDA to advocate for smart investments like these so West Virginians can build a brighter economic future right here at home.”

Capito, ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said Tuesday’s announcement represents EDA’s continued presence in West Virginia’s economic growth and recovery from the pandemic.

“These investments into our manufacturing, technology and health care sectors will add and retain jobs and encourage growth,” she said. “As ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, I’ll continue working to shape policies that will better allow EDA to deploy funding in West Virginia.”

Prior to the grant announcements, Capito, Manchin and Castillo participated in a roundtable discussion and presentation with young talent retention leaders and program participants at Generation West Virginia.

“This is an exciting time,” Castillo said during the roundtable discussion. “In the midst of a pandemic and everything that is challenging us, there’s opportunity. The EDA has been provided an opportunity to think about how we think about economic development in a much more inclusive way and a much more innovative way to make sure we are preparing the workforce of the future.”

Follow reporter Fred Pace at Facebook.com/FredPaceHD and via Twitter @FredPaceHD or email him at fpace@hdmediallc.com.

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