Region’s New Economy Focuses on Technology

The State Journal
1 August 1, 2014
By Brooks McCabe

Brooks McCabe is managing member and broker of West Virginia Commercial LLC. He has been involved in commercial and investment real estate for more than 30 years, and he also is general partner of McCabe Land Co. LP. He has served in the West Virginia Senate since 1998, and is a special project consultant to The State Journal.

North-Central West Virginia has the largest concentration of high tech jobs in West Virginia. The new economy in the Clarksburg-Fairmont-Morgantown corridor is focused upon technology-based economic development.

The business model for this region is not dissimilar to that found in the early days of Silicon Valley. Its building blocks were the NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Airfield and Stanford University, which allowed startups like Hewlett Packard to become established and prosper. The federal anchors provided the research and funding opportunities for Stanford University and together they provided the opportunities and skilled workforce to allow entrepreneurs to prosper.

The new economy in North-Central West Virginia has become substantial by West Virginia standards, but from a national perspective it is still in the early growth stage. As such, it is more fragile than many suspect. With proper care and nurturing from both the public and private sectors, North-Central West Virginia can become a major hub of technological innovation and a magnet for the new economy knowledge worker. Just as importantly, it can expand the research and technology hub being developed in the Pittsburgh region and carry it south into West Virginia to create a research and innovation economy of national significance.

The federal anchors in North-Central West Virginia are the FBI Criminal Justice Information System and the Department of Defense National Forensics and Biometrics Agency in Clarksburg. NASA’s Independent Verification and Validation center and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency Environmental Security Computing Center are both located in Fairmont’s I-79 Technology Park. NOAA has most recently brought two other high priority programs to the I-79 Technology Park: the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES-R) and the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) satellite ground station initiatives. Morgantown is home to the National Energy Technology Lab and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Together, these federal anchors provide a strong customer base for local and national firms. For example, Lockheed Martin won a billion-dollar contract several years ago, which has provided subcontracting opportunities for local firms.

This is West Virginia’s best chance to capture business in the new economy. The opportunities are very real and of national scope. West Virginia University, in concert with the West Virginia High Technology Consortium Foundation and state entrepreneurs, has an opportunity to become a national leader in big data research. This is an emerging field which has yet to be a primary focus of major research universities. The data being collected by NOAA’s satellites and stored in its super computers offer a major opportunity. Big data has found a use in national security and retail marketing. However, the massive amount of data being collected by NOAA’S GOES-R Antenna System is staggering; the research implications are only now being fully comprehended.

This is a chance for West Virginia to jump ahead in the burgeoning field of scientific analytics for big data and may even be an opportunity to solve the burgeoning problem with NASA’s current location in Fairmont.

The NASA Office of Inspector General seems determined to relocate the IV&V facility out of the WVU-owned facility in the I-79 Technology Park. Perhaps NASA could be relocated into another available facility in the park and the building in contention reconfigured for the home base of a big data research center for WVU. This is how a concerted, public-private effort can drive the new economy: It will be these scientists, researchers and technicians who will be recruited by the industry. The W.Va. High Technology Foundation has worked hard in making the park an ideal location for Federal Continuity of Operations so Fairmont can serve as a backup site for federal agencies in times of emergencies. The technology required to support these COOPs is needed just as badly by large technology firms. It is only a matter of time before the Amazons and Googles of the world take notice of the infrastructure being put in place at the I-79 Technology Park.

It is imperative the current federal programs remain in North-Central West Virginia. WVU has already moved to expand its offering in forensics, but little movement has been made to seriously address the need for a state- and private industry- supported research center in coal and natural gas. For the new economy to thrive, both federal and business anchors are needed, along with strong support from major research universities. The drivers of this economy need to be big, strong and diversified. North-Central West Virginia has the beginnings of this critical mass, but only the beginning. West Virginia’s new economy is still fragile and risks abound. There is much to do, but North-Central West Virginia is a good place to start.