by John Mark Shaver FAIRMONT NEWS EDITOR
FAIRMONT — Because of concerns over the continued spread of COVID-19, the High Technology Foundation Consortium is facing potential obstacles to expansion of the I-79 Technology Park and the recruitment of federal anchors.
Crews began work on Phase III of the technology park last year, which is set to open several parcels of land to potential federal anchors.
While the pandemic hasn’t yet impacted construction work on Phase III too much, Jim Estep, president and CEO of the High Technology Foundation, said it could in the near future.
“We’re putting down stone, and some guys are compacting it, and we have some side work,” Estep said. “Everything involves either sitting in an excavator or something else at this point. We may get slowed down a little bit as we’re pulling utilities through the manholes, but I’m hopeful that that doesn’t really mess up our schedule.”
While work on Phase III continues as normal, Estep said the same can’t be said for workers who hold regular office or lab jobs at the Robert H. Mollohan Research Center. He said precautions and changes started being made there in mid-March.
“We expanded the janitorial operations here at the research center to bring on additional folks who could wipe everything down from door handles to railings, walls, elevators and all of that. We went into high gear,” he said. “We started allowing some folks on staff who might have pre-existing conditions to work from home.
“(The next week), we told everybody just to work from home and to come in only if necessary. We purchased a case of gloves and some masks, and we told everybody that if they were here, they have to wear them. That’s been our operational posture since March 30. … Everybody is doing the best they can.”
While the foundation is taking as many precautions as possible, Estep said the work being done at the research center is too important to stop altogether for the duration of the pandemic.
“We’re operating two of the most advanced satellite stations in the country, and they just don’t stop doing that,” Estep said. “Thankfully, I’m not aware of any issues yet, although it may be naive for me to think we won’t have anything happen eventually.”
Estep said the process of attracting new federal anchors to the technology park has also slowed, mostly because many key officials have schedules in flux or are occupied dealing with the COVID-19 crisis.
However, Estep said the pandemic may make leaders in Washington, D.C., look at decentralizing the facilities of federal agencies rather than locating them in one area — a change that could see a number of federal anchors move to West Virginia.
“Something could happen significant where having all of those entities and federal operations over there becomes a major liability, and this is it,” Estep said. “If the federal government had been more dispersed where, instead of one giant cluster, you had folks spread out, you could have certain operations continue to some degree because they’re not all together. You can manage it better.”
Estep said that another crisis — like an even deadlier pandemic or an attack of some sort — could happen in the nation’s capital and cripple the United States if federal agencies don’t spread out their facilities more.
“Nobody would have imagined this or thought it was serious, even though we plan for pandemics,” Estep said. “Now is the time to address this problem so that, next time, it doesn’t destroy us.”
While 2020 has turned into an uneasy time for many, Estep said he sees hope on the horizon, both for the community and the economy, and he remains optimistic that the United States and West Virginia will overcome the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As stressful as everything is currently, I believe we are heading in a positive direction,” Estep said. “I believe we will get through this. … I believe we will recover and our economy will recover. There may be some sort of recession, but I think it’ll be short-lived. I think we’ll modify how we do business going forward. We’ll be much more sensitive to things, and I think there will be a push to bring more work back to the United States.”
Fairmont News Editor John Mark Shaver can be reached at 304-844-8485 or firstname.lastname@example.org.