by John Mark Shaver FAIRMONT NEWS EDITOR May 30, 2020
FAIRMONT — The High Technology Consortium Foundation has continued to work through the COVID-19 pandemic to further develop the I-79 High Tech Park, and the third phase of an expansion project is set to be finished soon.
The expansion, known as Phase III of the park’s development, includes building a road to previously inaccessible areas of the park and then offering the land to federal agencies for free.
Because of the nature of the work, Jim Estep, president and CEO of the High Technology Consortium Foundation, said the shutdown caused by the virus hasn’t had as big of an impact.
“We’ve been able to remain on schedule, although we may end up having a slight delay in completion because the local gas company had to shut down,” Estep said. “One of the final things is running the gas line along the road, so that could technically delay the end of the project a little bit. Other than that, things have continued on schedule.”
Estep said the first part of Phase III should be done this spring.
“Phase III is going great,” he said. “We’re ahead of schedule, and we’ve been able to do a little bit more than we originally planned. We’re already developing the plans for the next segment of the road expansion, which we’re hoping to get started by the end of year.”
He said completion of Phase III has been a long time coming, and its further development, along with the recruitment of more federal agencies, will be the foundation’s primary focus moving forward.
“Starting in 2019, we shifted the focus of the development of the park to Phase III, so going forward for the next several years, development of Phase III and the recruitment of federal anchors to Phase III will be the majority of our focus,” Estep said. “Now that the building sites in Phase III will be accessible and we’ve brought the utilities there, we can now formally offer these sites to the federal operations we’ve been talking to.”
Over the years, the park has attracted federal agencies like NASA and NOAA, both of which have continued to take on new projects and contracting opportunities.
Included in the development of Phase III is a massive jump in infrastructure, including 400-gigabytes-per-second internet capacity along the new road system, which Estep said is an important element for the agencies that the Foundation is pursuing.
This advancement is another bargaining chip the Foundation can use when speaking with potential incoming agencies.
“We have been in discussions with multiple federal operations that I can’t really discuss because it’s too early,” Estep said. “However, we have offered free building sites to these agencies, and they have a strong interest not only because the land is free, but because of the advanced electrical and telecommunication infrastructure we just put in.”
While the COVID-19 pandemic is tragic, Estep said the shutdowns it has caused are another way to entice federal agencies to spread out across the nation, with some of them potentially coming to North Central West Virginia. He also said the pandemic has not stopped recruitment efforts.
“In the last couple of weeks, things have — albeit virtually — picked up and we’ve been able to continue our conversations,” Estep said. “Many of the federal operations are assessing where they are and what they need to do to be better prepared in the future. I see a lot of that planning taking place, and from my perspective, that fits nicely with what we’ve been trying to do.”
“In effect, we’ve been trying to offer a solution for them to be prepared for this kind of event. It just boils down to, No. 1, reemphasizing and making as many parts of the government as possible aware of what we offer, and then hoping that those who want to take us up on the offer will be given the federal funding to make moves and make changes.”
However, Phase III isn’t the only development at the I-79 Technology Park.
Last month, Mon Health Systems announced its plans to build a 7,800-square-foot outpatient facility in the park, an announcement that was made only weeks before Fairmont Regional Medical Center began closing its doors for good.
While the facility may not be technology-based in the same traditional way as other occupants of the park, Estep said it’s a welcome addition.
“We have been in discussions with Mon Health for some time about coming to the I-79 Technology Park, which is a very important component of our recruitment strategy,” Estep said. “The federal agencies that we’re trying to recruit actually look for the availability of urgent care and primary care facilities. …
“Since the announcement was made by Fairmont Regional Medical Center that it will be closing, we have since been in conversations with Mon Health about a much more significant presence than they had originally planned, which will prove to be very valuable to our recruitment efforts.”
Because of the park’s historic importance and developments like Phase III and the Mon Health facility, many Marion County officials, including Marion County Commissioner Randy Elliott, see it as a beacon of North Central West Virginia.
“One of the most important things we have in Marion County is the High Tech Park,” Elliott said. “The development of that area is very important to Marion County. When we get those pads built up there, it’ll create additional opportunities for employment and a tax base and more prosperity here in Marion County.”
Many of the park’s inhabitants are also happy to help bolster the region’s economy. Greg Blaney, director of NASA’s Katherine Johnson Independent Verification and Validation Facility, said the center long has been an economic primer for Fairmont and the surrounding area.
“NASA’s IV&V Facility was the first thing in this technology park,” Blaney said. “When we came here, we were very limited in what we did, but we have been growing and expanding and enhancing things ever since. …
“I think we’ve been a huge stimulus for technology in the area. We aren’t the only one, but we were one of the first.”
The expansion of the park is one of several developments happening in Marion County right now, and Elliott said when all is said and done, the overall benefit to Marion County is great.
“That whole area out there in White Hall has the park expansion, the redevelopment of the Middletown Mall and the housing out there,” Elliott said. “They’re spending money here, and we receive the tax benefit from that. It’s a tremendous boon to the economy out here. With the park growing, everything that happens is good. I’m excited and proud to be a commissioner as that’s progressing.”
While the work is not done yet, Estep said he’s optimistic about the future of the I-79 Technology Park, and he’s excited to work with the federal agencies and other entities looking to relocate to the area.
“Last year was a great year for the development of the park,” Estep said. “That momentum is continuing into 2020 not only with road development but in the growing interest we’re getting from federal operations. I couldn’t be more excited about what the next couple of years are going to have in store for our entire community.”
Fairmont News Editor John Mark Shaver can be reached at 304-844-8485 or firstname.lastname@example.org.