Now is the time for technology-based economic development
The State Journal
January 9, 2017
Column by Brooks McCabe
Technology-based economic development offers West Virginia one of its best opportunities to jump-start real growth driven by high-paying research and manufacturing jobs.
With the economic and fiscal constraints currently facing West Virginia, immediate action is needed. The priorities must be set on outcome measures that are attainable in the short term with strategic initiatives following those investments to meet long-term goals. This will require a new focus and sureness of foot that allows decisions to be made decisively and with confidence. Intuit president and CEO Brad Smith was quoted in West Virginia Executive magazine as saying, “I believe the first steps to growing West Virginia’s high technology economy are recognizing the need to change and embracing the opportunity that lies ahead … . As Robert Quillen once stated, ‘Progress involves risk. You can’t steal second base and keep one foot on first base.’”
A lot of the groundwork and infrastructure for technology-based economic development is already in place. TechConnect West Virginia and the Chemical Alliance Zone, along with Battelle Technology Partnership Practice, several years ago prepared a well-done blueprint on how the state might proceed in the technology-based arena. The report, “West Virginia Blueprint for Technology-Based Economic Development,” is a treasure trove of thoughtful action items that are even timelier today. The four focus areas were: chemicals and advanced materials; biometrics; biotechnology; and advanced energy. The vast majority of the action items have not been implemented and they represent opportunity waiting. It will require refocusing and redistributing resources, which have been stumbling blocks to-date. This blueprint is the product of extensive work by some of the best minds in science, technology and business. It needs to be taken off the self and put into practice.
About the same time the TechConnect blueprint was prepared, the Southern Growth Policies Board published “Top Ten Policies for the Innovative State,” by Scott Doron of the Southern Technology Council. This is another list of action items worth considering to greatly expand West Virginia’s technology-based economic development initiatives. Some suggested action items include: Provide funds to hire world-class researchers for the state’s universities in disciplines tied to targeted industries; Establish tax credits or grants for private-sector R&D, especially when conducted by small businesses and partnered with state universities or federal labs; Make available incentives for university research to create companies from academic pursuits; Provide state tax credit for angel and venture capital investments; Provide incentives to promote math- and science-oriented college students into STEM teaching careers; Increase career awareness and assistance for trade vocations important to science and technology companies; and Create a joint House/Senate committee on science and technology to advise the Legislature on technology issues.
The critical mass for this innovation effort already is in place. North-Central West Virginia is the epicenter, with West Virginia University joined with the surrounding federal labs and agencies. In addition there is the presence of Mylan Pharmaceuticals and a variety of growing high-tech companies around the High Technology Foundation’s I-79 Technology Park. The Kanawha Valley has the West Virginia Regional Technology Park supported by the Mid-Atlantic Technology, Research and Innovation Center and a number of international chemical and manufacturing companies with state-of-the-art operating facilities. The Huntington-Ashland area has Marshall University and its share of large-scale chemical and manufacturing facilities. Together with the manufacturing facilities that line the Ohio River, West Virginia has the critical mass to seize major opportunities in the technology-based economic development arena.
There is an uncomfortable thread that weaves through this discussion, and it is funding. Money is tight and budget battles going forward will be severe. But by looking at the budget as a one-year plan based on real priorities, some glimmer of hope may be found. If you do not realign the budget, you are in essence saying we are staying with the past. As Brad Smith has suggested, we must recognize the need to change what we have been doing. “You can’t steel second base and keep one foot on first base.” There also are other viable alternatives. New money could be found for some of these action items and strategic initiatives. The Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund and RECLAIM Act are two federal programs that come to mind. The reallocation of some of the future oil and natural gas severance taxes is another. These sources could easily reach in the tens of millions of dollars annually and a significant portion of this funding could be allocated to the action items outlined above. We have choices; do we have the will? The time is now for technology-based economic development.
Brooks McCabe has been active in commercial real estate for 35 years. He is a former state senator and current West Virginia Public Service Commissioner. He also is a special project consultant to The State Journal on business and economic development issues. His comments herein are his alone.