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Study of two West Virginia tech parks to be completed by year’s end

By RUSTY MARKS

The State Journal

CHARLESTON, W.Va.  — West Virginia Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher said a report will be finished by the end of the year examining the efficacy of the I-79 Technology Park in Fairmont and the West Virginia Regional Technology Park in South Charleston.

A provision requiring the report was inserted into a higher education accountability bill passed by the state Legislature in April.

Language inserted into the legislation, House Bill 2815, requires the West Virginia Development Office to “research, investigate and make recommendations relating to advancing research activities, economic development and job creation relation to foundations and private entities, including the I-79 Technology Park, who focus on research and job development and that receive or have received since July 1, 2012, appropriation support from the state of West Virginia.” The report is due by Dec. 31.

While not mentioned by name, Thrasher said the intention of the amendment to the bill is also to investigate the regional tech park in South Charleston.

Del. Tim Miley, D-Harrison, who co-sponsored House Bill 2815 on the behalf of Gov. Jim Justice, said the language requiring the tech park study was not in the original version of the bill. That language was added in the Senate in an amendment offered by Sens. Ed Gaunch, R-Kanawha and Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha.

“The amendment was really (Sen. Robert) Plymale’s, (D-Wayne)” Gaunch said.

Plymale and Sen. Roman Presiozo, D-Marion, had earlier co-sponsored Senate Bill 651, which would have turned over control of the I-79 tech park to West Virginia University and the South Charleston tech park to Marshall University. That bill did not pass.

Jim Estep, president and CEO of the High Technology Foundation — which runs the I-79 park and whose foundation is specifically targeted by the language in House Bill 2815 — speculated adding the language into the House bill was a way to revive plans to try to transfer control of the tech parks.

The original text of Senate Bill 651, Estep said, “came as a complete surprise to me and came as a complete surprise to South Charleston. That bill never made it out of committee, so I assumed it was a dead issue.”

Estep thinks inserting language into the House bill is part of an ongoing plan to try to shut down the I-79 tech park. Until funding was cut off by the Legislature in 2016, the state had been subsidizing the tech park to the tune of about $200,000 a year. The state, which owns the tech park in South Charleston, has put millions of dollars into that facility.

Estep said Prezioso has been lobbying to turn over control of the I-79 park to WVU. Prezioso did not return telephone calls seeking comment for this story.

But Plymale still thinks it’s a good idea to look at whether the state should be putting money into the two parks.

I think it was good from an overall state standpoint,” Plymale said. The I-79 tech park was built largely with federal earmarks, he said, while the tech park in South Charleston is supported by state money.

“I’m not sure it should ever have been run by a state entity,” he said.

Thrasher said he does not anticipate a recommendation to shut either park down.

“Both parks have had ups and downs,” he said. “It’s the nature of the business. The key is to make sure they’re functioning as they should.

“Developable property is a rare commodity in West Virginia,” Thrasher said. “They are inherently a good investment if managed properly.”

Thrasher said he would have already finished the study of the two tech parks, but was sidetracked negotiating an $83.7 billion trade deal with China and by recent knee surgery. Thrasher said the report would be completed and delivered on time.

“I’m glad we are able to do a study of these two pieces of property,” he said.

Thrasher said he intends to look at both facilities with an eye to “filling up those parks with viable businesses that are employing people.”

Staff Writer Rusty Marks can be reached at 304-415-1480 or email at [email protected]

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