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Funding continues for TeleCenter

November 20, 1998|By KERRY LYNN FRALEY

RANSON, W.Va. - A meeting in Washington, D.C., on Thursday yielded a promise to keep the Jefferson County TeleCenter in Ranson, W.Va., open through September 1999, according to officials.

That should be enough time for the telecenter to become self-sufficient, said director Peter G. Smith, who said he'd be surprised if he couldn't get alternate funding secured by then.

The Ranson telecenter's fate had been dangling since the end of August, when the federal General Services Administration announced it planned to cut funding at the end of September 1998, said Smith, who was at the meeting in the office of U.S. Rep. Bob Wise, D-W.Va.

The reasons GSA gave for its decision to close the telecenter were "inadequate utilization, high costs and crummy prospects," Smith said.

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"Obviously, we didn't agree with that," he said.

With 15 work stations - including a networked personal computer, Internet access, e-mail and a "smart telephone" with voice mail - the center could accommodate 35 to 40 people averaging 1 1/2 to 2 days a week, he said.

But the telecenter, which opened on March 1, 1997, is in the "middle of the pack" of like centers that have been open the same amount of time, Smith said.

Hagerstown, Frederick, Md., and Winchester, Va., have telecenters similar to the Ranson telecenter, he said.

Housed in a former sewing factory at 401 S. Fairfax Blvd., the Ranson telecenter has 11 federal government workers who "telecommute," or work from the center instead of commuting to their offices between one and four days a week, he said.

Until now, the center - operated by the Jefferson County Development Authority under a contract with GSA - has relied on GSA for all of its funding, Smith said.

The center's current annual budget is $138,000, he said.

News that the center was on the GSA's chopping block was a "nasty surprise" because the plan had been to give the center until September 1999 to become self-sufficient by cultivating other uses for the telecenter in addition to telecommuting, Smith said.

"Essentially efforts to walk on many legs at once so when the federal money went away we could make it," he said.

Working under the original time line, Smith said he hadn't pursued other funding available for telecenters.

There are a lot of funding sources, including federal and state funding and grants, he said.

Unfortunately, there's usually a lag of six months to a year to obtain those monies, Smith said.

With programs for the community, including a telework program for disabled people and training programs for local workers, as well as telecommuting space in jeopardy, an appeal was made for Wise's help in getting a reprieve for the telecenter, he said.

With Wise's help, the center was able to get two temporary stays, first until the end of October, and then until the end of December, Smith said.

Still, it wasn't enough time to secure other funding sources, he said.

Wise wasn't satisfied with the GSA's initial open-ended compromise because he worried it could be closed on short notice, said press secretary Steve Cohen.

Cohen said his office will help in the effort to find alternate funding for the center.

With a little more than 10 months to find funding and cultivate various uses for the center, which also serves as a "business incubator" for the area, Smith said the outlook for the telecenter is good.

"I think we're here to stay," he said.

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