FAIRMONT, W.Va. — The Interstate 79 Technology Park is constantly calculating a chicken and egg issue.
Without significant numbers of employers in the knowledge/tech sector, young workers in related fields have little incentive to remain in West Virginia.
Without a burgeoning crop of workers with high-tech skills, tech sector companies look for more fertile ground in other states.
“Do we just throw our hands up and say ‘We quit?'” said James Estep, president and chief executive of the High Technology Foundation, which runs the I-79 Technology Park. “No, we’ve got to take another angle at this.
“Our approach here, really for a long time, has been to take a different tack. What we’re trying to do is go at it at the business case perspective.”
What Estep means is, the foundation caters to the needs of federal government agencies such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Department of Defense.
The park offers property and ease of access to Washington, D.C. — without being too close — to encourage federal agencies to establish a presence.
That, in turn, is meant to encourage private contractors with relationships to the federal agencies to settle in northcentral West Virginia too.
“These companies who would otherwise say ‘I can’t go to West Virginia’ now say ‘There’s money to be made; I’ve got to make it work,'” Estep said during a recent tour of the 375-acre park.
West Virginia Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher says he, too, is impressed with the Interstate 79 Technology Park’s work in luring jobs to the state. But he says there could be more potential tapped through greater cooperation with West Virginia University and by targeting more Department of Defense work.
Thrasher, in a question following an appearance at an education and workforce development forum in Charleston, briefly discussed his view of how the tech park might achieve even more of its potential.
“The high tech park in Fairmont has tremendous computing abilities because of the NASA facilities that went in there. I think we have not capitalized on the Department of Defense needs. It’s the biggest contracting agency in the federal government. We’re last in the country as far as receiving those dollars.
“I think when you look at Department of Defense you logically marry that up with the high tech consortium, particularly through the university. So I think there’s a lot of opportunity for collaboration between the park, the university and Commerce to try to develop those Department of Defense jobs within the park itself.”
The I-79 Technology Park has undergone significant, high-tech growth in recent years.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration located its Environmental Security Computing Center, one of the nation’s most advanced supercomputing centers, in the park six years ago. The supercomputer system, which churns and analyzes data, looks like rows of black high school lockers in a climate-safe environment.
The following year, NOAA decided to locate two of its satellite ground stations in the park.
And since then the park has become home to NOAA’s Cyber Security Operations Center.
The park in Fairmont just a couple of months ago landed a proposed $553 million contract — along with two other U.S. cities — with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration its new supercomputer contract.
The U.S. Department of Commerce is likely to locate its Enterprise Security Operations Center in the park in 2018.
All of that growth, Estep says, makes the I-79 Technology Park positioned to generate even more.
But the High Technology Foundation has been facing its share of challenges too. The nonprofit foundation is emerging from Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization filed in 2016.
The foundation blames a deteriorating relationship with its lender, Huntington Banks, and on an occupancy rate at the park that had dropped in recent years.
Estep believes the future is bright.
He says the federal relationships already on hand at the park, along with the potential for more, should pay off with more private growth.
“Every time you add one that has an exponential impact,” he said. “So it stands to reason that if you can keep doing that, bringing them here and rooting them down with longevity that you’ll create such a regional business case for knowledge sector activity that it will start to morph into the size of economic sector that can have an impact.”
One factor that Estep is counting on is federal requirements for agencies to have a “continuity of operations” plan to ensure the agencies are able to keep performing essential functions under a variety of potentially disruptive circumstances.
West Virginia’s location — close but not too close to Washington, D.C. — makes it a potentially-desirable location for agencies with continuity of operations needs, Estep believes.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is already using space in Fairmont for some of its own backup efforts.
Another potential lure is the need for federal agencies to upgrade and consolidate their data centers. The technology park is pitching its available land and the expertise already located on-site.
“Companies will want to, theoretically, come here to be physically close to the data they are going to be bidding contracts on,” Estep said.
Growth is possible, but Estep and others involved with the foundation still must field questions from potential private investors.
“That’s great but we still have some companies saying ‘Time out, NOAA, Commerce; you’re asking us to do this very sophisticated advance work in Fairmont, West Virginia. They have a workforce problem. This is going to cost a lot of money to make this happen.’ So far Commerce and NOAA have said ‘Well we think you can make it work,'” Estep said.
Estep thinks West Virginia’s workforce has the potential to rise to the challenge.
“What I have said to some of these companies is, we may not have a bunch of these folks hanging out down in the corner but I bet you anything that if we advertised and really put out a flag that there are thousands of people with the skill sets you need that are working out of this state who would love to come home,” he said.
Estep sees those efforts as working from two directions to improve West Virginia’s economic situation.
“Our state could very well be the least diversified state in the country,” he said. “We have so little diversification that when one sector goes through bad times like coal the whole state is unbalanced. Even with the fact that we have the potential for a strong natural gas sector, the base is destabilized.
“You would hope that something happens that allows us to bring in a new economic sector before the federal government has to take us over. But how do we go about that?”
The big answer, he says, is to embrace the knowledge economy. But West Virginia also has to support the workers for such an economy.
“Two of every three jobs in the next decade will be in the knowledge sector. So we should look to build a component of that in the state of West Virginia. What’s the number one thing these companies look for when they’re setting up a regional operation? The number one thing is workforce. A workforce with a certain level of educational attainment.
“So you say all right how are we? We are the bottom of the list. When you peel back that onion a little bit, you realize that probably the biggest crisis situation in the state is our workforce demographic.”
Too many West Virginia students with technical skills wind up departing for places where their skills will pay off, he said.
“What do they do? They don’t go home and hope the jobs come,” Estep said. “Most say ‘I’ve got to work,’ and they do what they’ve been doing and going to North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, California.
“If you consider the fact that we don’t have any of those industries in the state and you consider the fact that the fastest growing industry in the country is the knowledge sector, that goes a long way to explain what I consider to be this hemorrhaging.”
The key to solving the two-pronged problem, he said, is to partner with federal agencies to give tech businesses a reason to establish a beachhead in West Virginia.
“What would make a knowledge-sector business want to be here? We want an Amazon. We want a technology company, a Northrop Grumman, whatever, to set up shop here and hire a lot of people. What’s going to motivate them to do that? Is it a big check? No, they’ve got money.
“You have to come up with a game plan that affects how they make money.”