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High-tech business growth a hot topic at W.Va. forum

December 07, 2004|by DAVE McMILLION

charlestown@herald-mail.com

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. - Officials on Monday outlined increased education efforts and availability of start-up money for businesses as part of a continuing effort to bring high-technology business growth to the Eastern Panhandle.

The comments came during a seminar sponsored by the Gateway New Economy Council at the Clarion Hotel and Conference Center.

The Gateway New Economy Council is a Shepherdstown-based organization formed about two years ago to promote high-tech growth in the area.

The Eastern Panhandle has experienced high-tech 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, local economic officials have said.

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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 of California to find willing investors, officials have said.

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

Another challenge to high-tech growth in the area is a lack of qualified employees to work at such businesses, economic development officials said.

To help increase funding for new high-tech businesses, about $100 million in venture capital funding has been generated for qualifying companies, said Paul Woods, chairman for the business and economic development committee for the Gateway New Economy Council.

The West Virginia Venture Connection was established using state and federal funds, Woods said.

Regarding the lack of skilled high-tech workers, Woods said an effort is under way to conduct a survey of high-tech workers who live in the Eastern Panhandle but commute to nearby cities to work, Woods said.

The intent is to make the names of those people available to potential new high-tech companies in the area. Those workers might not be looking for new jobs, but that could change if they are given the chance to work in the area at a high-tech job and avoid a commute, Woods said.

"It's an untapped resource we have in the Eastern Panhandle," Woods said.

Other efforts that can help increase the number of skilled workers in the area are under way at Shepherd University, said school President David L. Dunlop.

Dunlop, who attended Monday's seminar, said Shepherd is developing a Master's in Business Administration degree that will have an emphasis on high-tech study.

U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who also attended the seminar, said he is especially hopeful about how the West Virginia Venture Connection can help spur high-tech growth.

"This place is just ripe" for high-tech growth, Rockefeller said.

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, some economic officials have said.

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

Also sponsoring the event were Discover the REAL West Virginia Foundation, the West Virginia Development Office and the development authorities in Berkeley, Jefferson and Morgan counties.

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