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Central to the economy

FAIRMONT — On a hilltop overlooking Interstate 79 stands the skeleton of the new home of the Institute for Scientific Research. Though it’s still 18 months from the day when up to 500 scientists and assistants move in, the building’s airfoil-shaped rooflines hint at the aerospace research they will do there.

ISR officials don’t like to talk about the cost, but one state official estimated the budget for the 263,000-square-foot building at $130 million.

Elsewhere in the I-79 Technology Park, the West Virginia High Technology Consortium Foundation has hired designers and contractors for three office buildings totaling 140,000 square feet. The cost: nearly $33 million from state, federal and private sources.

The buildings are already rented or at least spoken for by unnamed high-tech companies that will provide 600 good-paying jobs, a spokesman said.

Farther north along what some people call the High Technology Corridor, lunchtime visitors to Whitetail Cycle & Fitness in Morgantown sip cappuccinos and munch sandwiches at the shop’s River Café. Many sit outside to watch bikers and inline skaters glide past on the Caperton Trail, a converted railroad right-of-way, or simply gaze at the Mon River beyond.

Other restaurants have sprung up nearby, each with its own riverside deck. They serve visitors and the lawyers and accountants who have set up shop in the neighborhood since West Virginia University erected an administrative building along the river and private developers built a hotel next door.

“This used to be the worst student housing slum in Morgantown,” cycle shop owner Bruce Summers said. Now it’s among the city’s toniest neighborhoods. More offices and condominiums are in the works, he said.

The riverfront is just one entrée in a Morgantown development smorgasbord, City Manager Dan Boroff said. He ticked off recent and planned projects totaling hundreds of millions of dollars, both public and private, from a $200 million expansion of the WVU medical campus to the $230 million multimode called The Square at Falling Run.

From Monongalia County to Lewis County and east along Corridor H to Upshur County, economic development seems to be living up to its name. The North-Central region, unlike most parts of West Virginia and the country as a whole, has gained jobs in recent years.

In the last two years, the four I-79 counties — Lewis, Harrison, Marion and Monongalia — have added 1,100 jobs. That’s a rate of 1.1 percent a year. At the same time, the state overall was losing 1.2 percent of its jobs a year and the national economy lost 1.4 percent, said George Hammond of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at WVU.

Similarly, the unemployment rate of 4.9 percent for the high-tech corridor was “significantly below the state rate in 2003 and below the national rate of 6 percent,” Hammond said.

That’s not to say everything is fine in the eight counties that the Sunday Gazette-Mail lumped together to make up this region. Some of the more isolated counties east of I-79 are not enjoying the job growth of those blessed with four-lane access.

While Taylor County added 110 jobs, Barbour, Preston and Upshur counties lost a combined 610 jobs in the last two years, Hammond said.

“At one time, all roads came through Philippi,” the Barbour County seat, said county Economic Development Authority director Joe Mattaliano. After I-79 was routed about 20 miles to the west, Philippi became a forgotten wayside.

“We try to offset that by trying harder,” Mattaliano said. He counts new jobs by the dozen, rather than hundreds, and talks about striking alliances to sell hardwoods to Eastern European nations like the Czech Republic and Slovenia.


Lost mining,

manufacturing jobs

Since 1980, the North-Central region has lost more than two-thirds of its mining jobs, state Bureau of Employment Programs statistics show. From a high of nearly 12,000 in 1980, this category, which includes oil and natural gas jobs, has dropped to 3,640 by 2003, the BEP said.

That’s no real surprise to those who watch the industry. The 69.2 percent decline for the region almost exactly matches the 68.5 percent figure for the entire state during the same period. Ironically, coal production is about as high as ever; it just takes far fewer people to make it happen.

The North-Central counties also lost 40 percent of their manufacturing jobs in the last 23 years, BEP data show. As bad as that may sound, it’s a smaller loss than the statewide figure of 45 percent between 1980 and 2003.

The real growth area, outpacing the state average, is service-producing jobs. Because of changes in the way economists categorize different jobs, comparable figures for service jobs are available only through 2001. Still, the numbers are remarkable: 49.3 percent more service jobs in 2001 than in 1980, almost 56 percent more in the four I-79 counties.

Some service-sector jobs are better than others, of course. As a whole, the sector often suffers from a bad reputation. Think of Wal-Mart, for example, or telemarketers.


Service jobs often better

than their reputations

The North-Central counties have their share of those jobs, Hammond said. “Service includes a lot of retail and restaurant jobs, and tourism, like Stonewall Jackson Resort. Those jobs do tend to have lower wages than other jobs.”

But there are others. “Don’t forget the jobs at the High Technology Consortium, ISR and NASA,” he said. “These are all business services jobs.”

Health care falls into the service-producing sector, too. “There’s a large number of health-care jobs — doctors, nurses, researchers in the health-care field.

“In 2002, 13 percent of the region’s jobs were in health-care services,” Hammond said. “In Monongalia County, 19 percent. It’s an area of specialization for the region. They draw people from around the region.”

Even telemarketing jobs deserve more respect than they get, said Don Molter, director of the I-79 Development Council. As a Verizon retiree, Molter might be a bit prejudiced.

“From my Verizon days, telemarketing gets a bad rap, but it’s what teachers make,” he said. “It’s an attractive job. It’s not just the boiler room. The pay scale is going up. Telemarketing jobs pay benefits. Every job is a good job if it pays benefits.”

Hammond agreed, to a degree. “The telemarketing jobs, they tend to be volatile — up and down with the industry. The wages are not as bad as you’d think.”

Incomes have grown almost as fast as the nation’s

Per-capita income figures for the region look promising, at least on the surface. Since 1980, personal income has increased more than 204 percent, beating the state rate and nearly equaling the national increase of 206 percent.

Look at the actual dollars, though, and you’ll find that the $23,623 per person taken home in 2002, including transfer payments like Social Security and Medicare, trails the national figure of $30,906 by almost 25 percent.

A lower cost of living here might help compensate for the lower income level.

Among counties, Monongalia had the highest average total 2002 income at $26,022 while Taylor had the lowest, $18,704, data supplied by Hammond show.

Though the North-Central counties have had their share of coal mines over the years — the region is so riddled with underground shafts you can’t get a bank loan for new construction in many places without test boring for cavities — coal never dominated the economy here like it has in other parts of the state.


Energy jobs ‘not the only show in town’

At least that’s the opinion of Scott Rotruck, a former mine employee who now works in economic development in Morgantown. As head of the city’s Chamber of Commerce, he’s an unabashed cheerleader for the region.

“Coal was never the only industry here,” Rotruck said. “We had glass, the university, an agrarian industry. It always was a bit diversified. That’s important.

“We have manufacturing here: Mylan Labs, that’s manufacturing; Crompton, which used to be G.E.; FCX Systems.”

For Rotruck, Harrison County marks the southern end of a high-tech corridor that extends into Pennsylvania.

“It really goes Harrison, Marion, Mon and Pittsburgh. That’s our big city. We use it for recruiting. It’s got big sports we don’t have. It’s our international airport. It’s where we grab talent to fill our companies.”

Molter said energy is still very strong in the regional economy, “but it certainly is not the only show in town now. In a broad stroke, the corridor is doing well. Private industry, the public sector, we have a very diverse economy now.

“High technology, the Consortium, we’ve been fortunate to bring [in],” he said. “We have a strong biomedical industry. We have a pharmaceutical base with Mylan.”


High-tech and government

projects growing fast

Nowhere can the high technology presence be seen in greater concentration than just west of the South Fairmont exit of I-79, up NASA Boulevard from U.S. 250. The WVHTC Foundation’s I-79 Technology teems with federally sponsored research, training, manufacturing and new construction.

The foundation sold its original 26 acres to the ISR, led by WVU graduate Kevin Niewoehner. Now scattered among five sites around Fairmont, the ISR will consolidate its staff of scientists in its new home at the Technology Park, hopefully in December 2005.

Construction of the WVHTC Foundation’s three new buildings will take a similar amount of time, said executive vice president Raymond A. Oliverio, although the building starts will be staggered.

“Including the ISR, eventually 9,000 people will work in the 439-acre park,” he said.

Both Oliverio and Niewoehner went out of their way to praise Rep. Alan B. Mollohan, D-W.Va., for the success of the area.

Gov. Bob Wise visited the park recently to present a giant cardboard check for $14 million, representing the proceeds of one of the state economic development grant committee’s grants, Oliverio said. The grant will help pay for the new buildings.

“Mollohan was here, too,” he said. “We wouldn’t have had a park to begin with if he hadn’t been here.”

Asked what makes the North-Central region different from the rest of the state, Niewoehner said, “I think you have to give a lot of credit, not only to Congressman Mollohan and Sen. [Robert C.] Byrd, [D-W.Va.] but to the follow-through. It’s a very small group [of senators and representatives] who follow through on commitments. We are fortunate to have representatives who understand economic development.”

Niewoehner said the new facility will only improve his non-profit firm’s recruiting efforts, which have actually been easier than expected.

“It’s not intuitive to the scientific community, someone with 25 years of education and 15 years of experience, it’s not logical their next career step is West Virginia, which has among the lowest percent of Ph.Ds in its population,” he said. “But it’s been relatively straightforward to recruit.

“First, there’s quality of life. We’re not off the beaten path. We’re on an interstate, not that far from Pittsburgh and Washington. We have a university in town and WVU up the road.”

The pay package isn’t bad, either. “I want to say our average salary is in the fifties,” he said. Ph.Ds no doubt make more, while high school graduates make less.

In five years, Niewoehner has built the ISR’s annual sales to $28.5 million, mostly through federal contracts from agencies like NASA and the Department of Defense.


Federal contracts building homegrown companies

Federal contracts helped build another home-grown company — FCX Systems in Morgantown. Don Gallion, a Marshall graduate, and four other state natives founded the company in 1987 with the idea of building a power converter for the aviation industry.

Gallion and his partners designed and commercialized a solid-state power supply for jet aircraft. They carved out a niche for their company as the leading suppliers of such products.

Two years ago they built a $2 million, 50,000-square-foot manufacturing facility and home office in a business park on Chaplin Hill Road on the western edge of Morgantown, where they employ 85 people.

“We service 60 countries on seven continents,” said Gallion, the president and CEO. “We even have equipment on Antarctica.

“We’re kind of unique in that since 9/11, everyone in the aviation industry has been on their butts. A lot are out of business. At the same time, we built our new facility and continue to grow.”

Sales, which are expected to grow about 20 percent this year, were around $15 million last year, he said. At least half of the business is international.

Directly across the street, on about 300 acres of mostly former strip mine property, various sorts of earth-moving equipment are reshaping much of what’s now called Mylan Park. Generic drug pioneer and Mylan founder Milan Puskar gave $1 million for the naming rights.


Sports fields, a horse track and a school springing up

Anker Energy got the ball rolling here in 1999 when it donated the first 30-acre parcel of its former Patriot Mining property to a non-profit group, said Anna Rittenhouse, the park’s director of operations. That turned into Anker Fields, two softball and two baseball fields used largely by Monongalia County high school teams in the spring, and by others throughout the year.

Anker Fields, and the more recent Miracle Field for special-needs athletes, are just the tip of the Mylan Park iceberg. Below those fields, graders have carved out a huge plain called the Athletic Field Complex. Seven soccer, rugby, lacrosse and football fields will open this fall, assuming it ever gets dry enough for seeding.

A group is trying to build the Horse and Event Center and has secured a $1.5 million federal grant to build a road to the site. Road work is underway and construction of the center’s first phase — outdoor practice and show rings and the first of four planned barns — will start this summer, Rittenhouse said. Total cost: $13 million to $15 million.

It’s not just for horses and horse-lovers, said administrative assistant Kim Kinley. “You can have car shows, you can have dog shows, RV shows, trade shows, anything. We hope once people see it’s here and easy to get to, we’ll get more support.”

Then there’s the planned recreation center, an indoor gym of sorts, plus a pool and ice rink. And an outdoor amphitheater that could seat up to 7,000 people. And an elementary school.

“Overall there are 15 projects planned,” Rittenhouse said.

Biometrics, once a buzzword, now a growth industry

Rotruck of the Chamber of Commerce also sits on the park board of directors, so he’s not exactly a neutral observer. “It’s the kind of thing we’re doing to attract these high-tech companies.”

Rotruck knows a little bit about that. Biometrics, for example, has been a buzzword in these parts for a half-dozen years or more. Rotruck thinks the industry might be reaching critical mass.

“There’s a lot of private companies looking to develop technologies,” he said. “I know every week I am in touch with people who are interested in biometrics. These people are spending their own money to come here and kick the tires.”

Although Upshur County lies off the I-79 corridor, its economy, too, is on the upswing, said Steve Foster, the new director of the county’s development authority. He attributes that in large part to Corridor H, an east-west link to the lucrative Beltway area that slices through his county.

“There’s $50 million of projects going on now,” he said. That includes a high school renovation, airport runway extension, a new Lowe’s store in Buckhannon, an expansion of an unnamed manufacturer and plans for a performing arts center at West Virginia Wesleyan College.

Oddly enough, mining companies are having trouble hiring qualified miners, Foster said. “We have jobs going begging right now. We’ve skipped a whole generation of miners.”

With prices near all-time highs, the natural gas industry is booming, too.

People from Virginia and Maryland seeking second homes and/or retirement homes are pushing past the Allegheny Highlands into Upshur County, he said.

“All things considered, were almost in a mini-boom here. Corridor H, when it’s completed, will give us great access to the Eastern U.S.”

Canadian glassmaker looking to jump-start U.S. production

And if you thought the glass industry had come and gone, you haven’t met Chris Capredoni. Son of the founder of the 10-year-old Capredoni Crystal Inc. of Canada, Capredoni has been interviewing people at the old GlassWorks plant in Weston this week.

He plans to re-open the gift shop Monday and begin production in mid-August.

Though he plans to hire just 20 to 25 people to start with, a fraction of what GlassWorks employed, Capredoni thinks he can succeed where the former company did not. He’s replacing the old furnace with a state-of-the-art modular Italian one.

Setting up shop as an American manufacturer — he used to farm out production to England and Taiwan — should give him a toehold in the U.S. sales market. For now, he is simply replacing production he contracted out.

“Hopefully it will be an expansion because most of the U.S. is virgin territory for us,” said Capredoni, 35. “We’ll still sell our product in Canada, but this gives us an opportunity to sell in the other states.

“It’s difficult as a foreigner. As a U.S. producer, it opens doors to you.”

To contact staff writer Jim Balow, use e-mail or call 348-5102.


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