High Technology Foundation strengthens partnership with NOAA for hundreds of millions in I-79 High Tech Park investments

by John Mark Shaver FAIRMONT NEWS EDITOR Mar 29, 2024


FAIRMONT, W.Va. (WV News) — The West Virginia High Technology Foundation has a number of projects in the works to help support its partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which foundation President and CEO Jim Estep hopes will help accelerate the foundation and its I-79 Technology Park to the next level.

Estep said the park currently boasts more than 30 company tenants and an estimated workforce of over 1,200, many of whom work at organizations like NASA, Mon Health and NOAA.

“Over the last part of 2023, we were incredibly busy with NOAA planning for what is going to be a $300 million infrastructure expansion in the park,” Estep said. “That expansion is going to do a number of things. For one, it’s going to probably triple NOAA’s capacity to support high-performance computing systems like supercomputers.

The West Virginia High Technology Foundation turned 30 this year, and officials hope to continue the successes achieved at the I-79 Technology Foundation
Submitted photo

“Once that’s complete and NOAA begins fielding systems here, we’re going to rapidly approach other locations in the country that you hear about all the time like the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and we’re going to expand. I’m not being hyperbolic. That’s a reality. …

“The infrastructure is also going to support the expansion of the ground system operations for NOAA’s satellite programs that run here. For example, we have the command center GOES-R series of satellites and the Joint Polar Satellite System. We now have the command center for the space weather satellite system. Part of the infrastructure is going to be to set the stage for the next generation of ground station operations to come here, which will heavily be oriented toward ‘the cloud.’”

NOAA’s dishes for the GOES-R satellite system can be prominently seen at the High Technology Park in Fairmont.
Submitted photo

Estep said NOAA’s goal is to expand deeper into the “ground station as a service” industry by 2030, providing ground system cloud support to companies like Microsoft and Amazon. He said companies are already partnering with these ground stations to utilize their massive storage capabilities, and he’s excited about the prospect about those stations being located in Fairmont.

“The U.S. Commerce Department, of which NOAA is a part, has been given the designation to control all space commerce,” Estep said. “NOAA is going to be building what is basically an air traffic control system for space. The infrastructure investment that NOAA is making can support that.”

Part of NOAA’s expansion will take it into the I-79 Technology Park’s “Phase III” development, an area of the park the foundation has been working to provide access to and make ready for companies and agencies to set up shop. Estep said NOAA’s expansion will include a “farm” of supercomputing modules, the size of which he said will exceed the size of NOAA’s current research center.

“We are working on funding to continue the road segment further into the Phase III area,” Estep said. “The continued development of Phase III is definitely one of our major activities going forward in 2024.”

Phase III of development at the I-79 High Technology Park is underway, and officials hope to soon break ground on preparing a place for NOAA’s new supercomputing modules.
Staff file photo by John Mark Shaver

Estep said the foundation has put in nearly $5 million of work into Phase III of the park over the last few years. The foundation plans to start developing the pad for NOAA’s supercomputing modules this spring at an estimated cost of $30 million.

Estep said another major goal of the foundation right now is the continued development of an “ecosystem” for the commercial climate and weather sector, an industry that has drawn the foundation’s attention for a few years now.

The commercial climate and weather industry uses data gathered from satellites like the ones NOAA controls from the I-79 High Tech Park, using the data as a basis for a variety of commercial products.

“The data and analysis that’s done here already fuels that sector,” Estep said. “The development of our ecosystem is intended to help root a major part of that industry and expansion here in our region, which could have a multi-billion dollar impact, so it’s a high priority of ours to continue those efforts. …

Jim Estep, High technology Foundation president and CEO, examines plans for Phase III of development at the I-79 High Technology Park.
Staff file photo by Charles Young

“White we’re focused on NOAA right now, we are in conversations with the Air Force, Space Force and NASA about how those components can be a part of our ecosystem, as well as other non-government sources of climate and weather data.”

He added that NOAA is set to sign a new 17-year lease for the remaining available space in the Robert H. Mollohan Research Center, a building in which NOAA has invested over $200 million since 2010.

“In the next three to four years they will have invested another $300 million,” Estep said. “The support contract for the supercomputing center was $553 million. The support contract for cybersecurity was another $100 million. We’ve already exceeded a $1 billion dollar investment by NOAA in the park in the last decade. …

“It’s very satisfying that we’ve been able to facilitate providing such an important economic value of that magnitude, and I’m most excited about what it represents in terms of future potential.”

With everything that’s in the works, Estep said he’s optimistic and confident about the future of the West Virginia High Technology Foundation, and he’s looking forward to seeing how the foundation’s partnerships and investments will affect the region in the near future.

“The lease will create enormous stability for the High Tech Foundation for a long time,” Estep said. “The infrastructure investment is going to position us to bring in more of the major programs that have major contracting associated with them. … I haven’t been this excited about where we’re going in a long time.”

Fairmont News Editor John Mark Shaver can be reached at 304-844-8485 or [email protected].

Original article as posted at WVNEWS.com on March 29, 2024.