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We've waited this long, don't bail on technology park

November 21, 2004|by TIM ROWLAND

The first thing you notice about Intelsat Global Service Corp. is how unnoticeable it is. The first, and to date only, tenant of Allegheny Technology Park on Downsville Pike has no big, proud signs advertising as its presence, as you would see at Citicorp or Mack Trucks.

It's well off the road, and the only clue to its existence is a satellite dish or two poking up from among the trees visible from the lightly traveled Rench Road.

So crucial are the satellite signals bouncing back and forth from these dishes that the company has multiple defense systems to guard against power failure - which will never happen, because it is served by the mother of all power substations.

So I suppose the good news, should the rest of the technology park be rezoned for housing developments, is that these homes would never be without electricity for their toaster ovens or broadband for their iTunes.

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But I do wonder how such a sensitive operation would feel about being surrounded by backyard barbecues and Frisbees flying over the fence.

Maybe they wouldn't care. And maybe we shouldn't care if the dream of a high-tech business park goes the way of vinyl siding and pressure-treated decks. After all, the park has been on the market for well over a decade with just one company to show for it. And this planned urban development sounds decent enough - more than decent, really.

But this may be precisely the wrong time to punt on the project. Remember, the vision-types have not necessarily been wrong about the future of Washington County, they have just been ahead of their time.

They said we were going to be overrun with growth in the '90s. History shows they were not necessarily inaccurate, just a decade ahead in their predictions.

Likewise, some, including those at Allegheny Energy, projected the '90s would bring a wave of tech over the mountains and there would be demand for property specially fitted with high-power utilities and fiber optics. Again, there is every indication they may have been right, if slightly ahead of their time.

Just our luck, the day after the county rezones the property to allow housing developments, some Montgomery County high tech firm would come calling, looking for (relatively) cheap land and high quality connectivity. While we hem and haw about finding some other suitable site, they'll be opening up shop in Berkeley or Jefferson counties in West Virginia.

The Washington County Economic Development Commission is on record as opposing the change from tech to deck. In a letter to the zoning board, it says, "We believe the current (zoning) can continue to help the county attract research, education, technology and related manufacturing employment and the associated higher paying jobs that come with those types of businesses ... the addition of housing to the district is not viewed as a complement to that effort."

In case you do not speak bureaucrat, I will translate: "This is totally nuts! We can't believe anyone would even dream of cashing in a technology park for a housing development."

Here's the deal. We can keep building bedrooms for people who will get up at 5 in the morning and drive a couple of hours to high-tech plants and offices to the east. Or we can make a welcome nest for those companies to move here - we get the tax revenue, and the opportunities for our kids increase exponentially, along with the quality of the employees' lives.

There are two risks, of course. One is that the housing will move along to a site that is more visually sensitive, or one where the roads and utilities - unlike a site along an interstate - can't handle it as well. The other risk is that nothing will come of our open arms and the technology park will sit vacant for another decade.

The first risk is a trade that you make. Growth and/or sprawl is a problem in the county. But a far bigger problem in this county is the dearth of employment opportunities for people who want something beyond warehouse work.

The second risk is hardly a risk at all. If all demographic trends are somehow reversed in the next decade and it becomes clear that desirable industry will never call Washington County home, the land will still be there.

But to anyone aware of the staggering land costs to the east, this hardly seems likely. With technology making distances more and more meaningless, smart companies are going to see that the bottom line outweighs the dubious prestige of being near the beltways.

To my mind, the technology park is not only a good idea, it is something of a responsibility. Governments need to be concerned with the quality of lives of people who live within its boundaries. I've talked to a number of commuters in recent weeks, and they have all sounded the same: Weary.

Jobs for people with their qualifications pay well, but not always well enough to afford the housing costs near their places of employment. Commuting is currently their only option. But spending one-fourth of your waking hours going back and forth to work is not an ideal way to live. Neither is it ideal for those of us who work locally. These are talented people whose time would be better spent in the community than on the road.

Allegheny Energy has pulled up stakes, and as the once-grand company fights for every dime, its wish for divestiture is understandable. But the county's ace is the very specific zoning that was designed to keep housing and shopping-center developers' mitts off the prize.

It would be proper if the zoning board ensures that we have something to remember the old Allegheny by - fondly, that is.

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