FAIRMONT, W.Va. — Creating economic diversity in the state of West Virginia has been a topic of discussion among politicians and business professionals alike, and Jim Estep, president and CEO of the High Technology Foundation, said it’s time to focus that conversation on the technology sector.
“Everybody who pays any attention whatsoever to the state of our state economy realizes that things are changing dramatically, and we can’t rely on the old business models. At the top of the list of ways to address that of course, is economic diversification,” Estep said.
Estep said economic diversification is about much more than having multiple industries to support the state economy.
“You also have to pay close attention to the workforce demographic,” he said. “In other words, you have to have a balanced workforce of educated, uneducated, vocational and so force. You have to have that balance if you truly want to participate in the national economy efficiently.”
Unfortunately, Estep said, West Virginia suffers from a lack of economic diversity not only in the industry standpoint but also is perennially ranked as the least educated state in the country.
“When these companies look for locations to set up operations or expand operations, they want to go to those locations with the best workforce, so right out of the shoot we’re in a bad place,” he said.
While the state’s universities have done a great job addressing this issue, Estep said there’s still significant room for improvement.
“The problem is that these workers, when they graduate, if there’s no jobs for them, they’ll go to Pennsylvania or North Carolina,” he said. “You can’t fix the problem by producing more knowledge workers. You have to create a business sector, and to create a business sector, you have to somehow establish a business space for that sector to grow and thrive.”
Over the last decade, Estep and other staff of the High Technology Foundation have worked to create that business space by recruiting federal operations into the community.
West Virginia is already home to several federal operations, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration at the Foundation’s I-79 Technology Park, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division in Bridgeport, the U.S. Army’s Biometrics Identity Management Activity in Clarksburg and the National Energy Technology Laboratory and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in Morgantown.
“The impact that those federal operations have had in our community have been substantial, not just because they invest significant amounts of money in infrastructure and hire lots of people,” Estep said. “The most important thing that they’ve done is put out annually an enormous amount of contracting opportunities, and this contracting activity has had the effect of creating a business space for technology companies and knowledge sector companies that want to come to North Central West Virginia to chase that work.”
Many federal operations began looking outside of the nation’s capital to expand or set up new programs post-9/11 as a means of national security. Several opted to spread out their data centers across the country, but now they’re trying to consolidate into fewer facilities.
“You have a couple of issues there. One is there’s too much density in the greater D.C. area right now, and we unfortunately live in a time where a terrorist could explode a dirty bomb in northern Virginia, which could paralyze our federal government,” Estep said. “Everybody understands that, and they’re trying to address it, and part of the way we address that is you ‘de-densify’ and move west.”
Looking forward Estep said he is excited and hopeful to see more technology sector industry move into not only the I-79 Technology Park but West Virginia has a whole.
“North Central West Virginia is actually in a sweet spot for that kind of activity,” he said. “When you consider that you could drive over here and back from D.C. in a day and we have an airport in Clarksburg that can handle any type of aircraft there is, it really begins to look like a super attractive location for what the federal government calls continuity of operation.”