FAIRMONT, W.Va. — To explain the mission of the West Virginia High Technology Foundation, President and CEO Jim Estep went back in time to the late 1980s.
U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd had just become chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
“As chair of that committee, Sen. Byrd had incredible leverage and incredible insight and say-so into the budgets of the federal government and every federal agency,” Estep said.
Byrd saw that the FBI was looking to relocate and expand its Criminal Justice Information Systems (CJIS) division. Byrd offered the division the funding it would need, as long as it put down roots in West Virginia.
The FBI’s CJIS division built a facility on the outskirts of Clarksburg and created thousands of employment opportunities both directly and through offering the kind of government contracts that would attract major companies to the area.
“The phenomenon surrounding that was kind of this little economic ecosystem,” Estep said. “Basically, Sen. Byrd bringing in that FBI operation and firmly rooting them here, that not only helped the construction industry for a while, but it attracted companies like Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, a whole stable of companies, which are all knowledge-based.
“It made them want to come here, cluster around the FBI, because they wanted to chase the work.”
Estep refers to CJIS as a federal anchor. Byrd also helped bring other anchors to the I-79 technology corridor, Estep said, including the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Technology Lab in Morgantown and the NASA Independent Verification and Validation (IV&V) facility at the I-79 Technology Park in Fairmont.
Attracting and retaining these federal anchors is the key to growing the state’s knowledge economy, Estep said.
“The senator, for the last 20 years, has tried to plant these federal anchor activities up and down the corridor, from Clarksburg to Morgantown, knowing that each one would hopefully have that anchor effect,” Estep said. “The federal anchors create the business case that makes these knowledge companies want to come to West Virginia.
“You want to do everything you can to try to make that successful.”
‘A very painful catch-22’
Estep said West Virginia suffers from a notable imbalance in its workforce. He pointed to recent data showing that the state’s largest employer is Walmart.
Besides already having a relatively small workforce, Estep said, the percentage of those workers who are equipped to work in the knowledge-based economy is small.
“We need to increase our population by 500,000, and it needs to be mostly knowledge workers…