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Forum focuses on high-tech growth in Panhandle

May 04, 2004|by DAVE McMILLION

charlestown@herald-mail.com

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. - West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle has experienced high-technology growth - as witnessed by new facilities over the years operated by the U.S. Coast Guard, the Internal Revenue Service and a number of private companies - but challenges to future growth exist, organizers of a New Economy Forum in Shepherdstown said Monday.

One challenge is that entrepreneurs interested in starting new high-tech companies in the area often have to go to New York or the Silicon Valley in California to find willing investors, said Ray Alvarez, vice president of the Gateway New Economy Council.

Even then, those investors often are hesitant to lend money to local entrepreneurs because the firms are not familiar with the area, Alvarez said.

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About 220 business professionals, educators and lawmakers gathered at the Clarion Hotel and Conference Center to discuss ways of attracting more high-tech businesses to the Eastern Panhandle.

The forum was sponsored by the Gateway New Economy Council, a Shepherdstown-based organization formed about a year and a half ago to promote high-tech growth in the area.

A push to bolster Jefferson County's business sector has been ongoing because if the area were to become solely a bedroom community, it would drain public services, said Jeanne Muir, one of the coordinators of Monday's event.

The idea is to increase business development, which will generate more tax revenue and help pay for public services.

"And high-tech makes the most sense," said Muir, who operates the Thomas Shepherd Inn in Shepherdstown with her husband.

Among the advantages of high-tech businesses is that they are clean operations and they pay well, said Muir.

But high-tech businesses face hurdles, such as finding qualified employees.

Robert J. Tufts, director of technical development for Northrop Grumman IT, said his firm is looking for employees who can demonstrate skills such as problem-solving. But the company, which does contract work in the Eastern Panhandle, has trouble finding people with those skills, and often has to train workers for up to six months, Tufts said during a panel discussion.

Northrop Grumman officials have worked with universities in an attempt to redesign study programs to meet the company's need, Tufts said.

Jefferson County Schools Superintendent R. Steven Nichols said the school system has made progress in expanding its computer science training for students. But Nichols said the school system is grappling with an increasing student population and a lot of students are leaving the system to study elsewhere because of overcrowding.

Forum participants took the opportunity to urge the community's passage of a $19 million school construction bond, which would be used to build a second high school in the county. School officials have proposed that the new high school include a science and technology center to help prepare students for jobs in high-tech fields. The $19 million bond will be put before Jefferson County voters for approval in next Tuesday's primary election.

The keynote speaker was U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who said he was honored to be in the presence of the "sharp minds" gathered at the conference. Rockefeller said business success is not about driving up national debt. Instead, the economy will thrive because of innovative, skilled entrepreneurs, said Rockefeller, D-W.Va.

"We have to be willing to go against the grain," Rockefeller said.

Rockefeller said the state has demonstrated its ability to succeed with new industries, which is illustrated by the Sino Swearingen jet plane operation in Berkeley County.

A potential new high-tech area which the Eastern Panhandle could capitalize on is software design for anti-terrorism efforts, said Rockefeller, who predicted such work will become an "enormous industry."

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