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W.Va. businesses with federal contracts concerned

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia business leaders are afraid the federal government shutdown could have a major impact on their businesses and their employees.

James Estep, president of the West Virginia High Technology Consortium Foundation in Fairmont, a regional economic development organization that has promoted the development of the Technology Park and many research programs along Interstate 79.

"We are feeling the federal government shutdown in north-central West Virginia because we have several major government programs here, including the FBI, NASA, the Department of Defense, NOAH [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] and energy labs.

"It is the same thing with the energy lab up in Morgantown. At what point do these agencies run out of money to keep their facilities open? Once a facility closes, the contractors and their employees can't go to work and can't get paid," Estep said.

The National Energy Technology Laboratory in Morgantown is part of the U.S. Department of Energy.

The DOE website indicates the Morgantown facility has 13,814 employees, but only 1,124 might keep working if the government shutdown continues.

The DOE will be able to operate for a short time, but employee and contractor furloughs would begin if a congressional agreement is not reached in the near future.

Evan Hansen heads Downstream Strategies, an environmental consulting company with 11 employees and offices in Morgantown and Alderson.

"We work for a variety of people and have federal contracts," Hansen said Wednesday. "We received a suspension-of-work letter yesterday morning from the federal Department of the Interior.

"They said that 'no further financial obligations may be incurred.  . . . You are hereby ordered to suspend all work on contracts immediately.'

Hansen said the shutdown has a real impact on a company like Downstream Strategies. A percentage of the company's work relies on government contracts.

"We are also not going to get paid for work we did in previous months. We invoice for our work periodically," Hansen said. "We will eventually get paid for that, but it presents a cash-flow problem."

Three of Hansen's 11 employees work under Interior Department contracts.

"Other companies have an even higher percentage of their workers getting paid by the federal government, especially along the I-79 Corridor.

"I am really mad about this. It is absurd to me that Congress is doing this simply to try to overturn Obamacare," Hansen said. "No matter what you think about Obamacare, using this to shut government down is crazy, out-of-control crazy."

John Dahlia is director of corporate communications for Global Science and Technology along the I-79 Corridor near Fairmont.

"The government shutdown has had an impact, not just on the company I work for, but on the whole region," he said. "The NASA Center, which is about 100 feet from my office, is closed.

"Facilities are closed that are government-related. At Global Science and Technology, we are very fortunate. We have two major programs with the state of West Virginia.

Global Science and Technology also works for NOAH, helping collect a "gigantic library of climate data from satellites circling the earth. This is still running and will last for a few months," Dahlia said.

"We also have a lot of people working in Charleston. Our work is stable for the time being, but we are very concerned," he said. "We are hopeful [the government shutdown] will be resolved very soon."

The NASA Independent Verification and Validation Facility, which tests software for space missions, already has completely closed.

"There are 200 people who usually work in their building," Dahlia said. "Some are considering vacations. Others are waiting for Congress to get its act together.

"We anticipate a huge impact on our region. After the first couple of days, no one really feels it yet. But if it moves into two or three weeks, then you will see a big impact on the local economy and the state's economy.

Dahlia said he worries that the shutdown could impact the Christmas shopping season.

The FBI fingerprint facility in Bridgeport remains open.

"Its work is considered critical," Dahlia said, "but the longer this takes, those programs could be in jeopardy, too."

Estep said, "Each business is different. After about a week, you really start feeling the pain. In a week and a half, you are in a crisis. In two weeks, you could begin sustaining irreversible economic damage."

The I-79 Technology Park, Estep said, is playing an increasingly important role in research, combined with the National Energy Lab in Morgantown and NASA operations in Fairmont.

"The synergy of this grows each day, but when they close down government, it is very counterproductive.

"We have almost 400 acres of the I-79 Technology Park, a tool to help us recruit more businesses. And we have some of the best telecommunications and power facilities in the world and free land," Estep said. "In the last 20 years, we have come a long way. We have to keep it up. We have this land to give away because of efforts by Senator Robert S. Byrd and Congressman Alan Mollohan [both D-W.Va.].

Byrd died in 2010. Mollohan was unseated in that year's Democratic primary.

"Without them, our ability to get federal money has diminished substantially," Estep said, "but we have to keep this going to the best of our ability."

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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