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I-79 tech corridor advocates want more state funds

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Advocates for the high-tech corridor along Interstate 79 in Northern West Virginia sent legislators a letter recently, asking about what they call a major difference in funding for the state's two high-tech parks.

The I-79 high-tech corridor receives about $200,000 annually, according to the Affiliate Leadership Council, which represents the corridor. The West Virginia Education, Research and Technology Park in South Charleston -- which is partly owned by the state -- receives $3 million annually, the council said. The letter was sent Aug. 14.

"The state of West Virginia is in a very precarious position," said John Dahlia, a council member and director of corporate communications for Global Science & Technology. "They essentially have this tech park in Charleston that they have no choice but to support financially."

In 2010, then-Gov. Joe Manchin announced that West Virginia, in conjunction with the its Higher Education Policy Commission, would champion revitalization efforts at the South Charleston tech park. Since the initial commitment, the state has supplemented the park's resurgence with $9 million.

During that same time, the government allocated $645,102 to the Affiliate Leadership Council.

"We understand there is a difference between the two," Dahlia said. "However, we were in a way dumbfounded that the state year after year has invested millions upon millions of dollars in this tech park in Charleston to essentially keep the lights on."

The Northern high-tech corridor -- which includes Harrison, Lewis, Marion, Monongalia, Preston and Upshur counties -- grew from the vision of late Sen. Robert C. Byrd and then-Rep. Alan Mollohan, both D-W.Va., to bring federal anchors into West Virginia to cultivate a high-tech business community, Dahlia said.

The FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services, the Department of Defense's Biometric Identity Management Agency and the National White Collar Crime Center are located in the area. NASA's Independent Verification and Validation facility and the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration are in Fairmont. Morgantown is home to the National Energy Technology Laboratory and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

According to an economic-impact study compiled by Fairmont State University assistant economics professor Amy Godfrey in 2011, West Virginia's north-central technological industries provide 11,500 jobs with a $1.6 billion production-output value. Overall, West Virginia's technology industry grew by 8.2 percent between 2010 and 2011, accounting for 7.3 percent of total jobs statewide.

"That's the frustrating part," Dahlia said. "The bottom line is, we are in great support of the tech park in Charleston. It's clearly a start-up. The tech park up north is in a growth mode. All we're asking for is a little bit more support financially so we can go the next step and grow even more and do even more and benefit the whole state."

West Virginia House Majority Whip Mike Caputo, D-Marion, said he sees the importance of supporting both regional developments as much as possible.

"The high-tech park in Fairmont is extremely valuable to our economy," Caputo said. "The Marion County House delegation has always been very supportive of it and continues to seek state funding, but I realize that the governor is operating with an extremely tight budget and is forced to turn away many worthwhile efforts seeking funding."

Caputo said he's not criticizing the South Charleston facility and its role in Southern West Virginia's economic development, but that he will continue to do what he can to obtain state funds for the Northern park.

Austin Frecks and his business partners moved to north-central West Virginia to start their high-tech business, Aces And Eights Corp.

"One of the major factors for any start-up is trying to keep your bottom line as low as you can until you're on your feet," Frecks said.

The company moved into the I-79 tech park's incubator, which provided cheaper rent, business support and communication systems.

"What the area brought to us was having that many federal anchors right there," Frecks said. "Federal anchors tend to put out contracts, a lot less in the days of sequestration but, nonetheless, if you do any type of high-technology business that has anything to do with government, you tend to want to migrate toward centers that have a lot of federal anchors."

However, as far as state funding, "that was an eye-opener that we learned once getting here," Frecks said. "The state isn't helping as much as we thought."

He said he thinks the Northern high-tech park is in a pivotal time.

"There's no money to do anything," he said. "We're stagnant and at a standstill. I'd venture to guess some of the services that are currently offered may be downscaled or even put on the shelf temporarily because of funding.

"Not only will we not move forward, we'll actually move backward."

Reach Caitlin Cook at caitlin.cook@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5113.


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