WV tech leaders hope lawmakers heed advice to advance development
by John Mark Shaver, Fairmont News Editor
CHARLESTON — With the 2020 West Virginia legislative session now in full swing, the state’s technology leaders are hoping to see some major support for their sector, including help with workforce recruitment and funding for startup companies.
First and foremost, the opinion shared by several tech leaders is that state leadership can do more to support the growing technology and knowledge sectors throughout West Virginia.
Anne Barth, the executive director of TechConnect WV, said that while she’s grateful for the support the legislators have given her organization — and technology in general — many necessary pieces of the puzzle are still needed.
“I want to look back at when TechConnect first got started and we worked with the Battelle Technology Partnership Practice to publish the tech-based economic development plan for West Virginia (in 2009),” Barth said. “Some of those overall strategies and actions that were recommended at that time are still relevant today…
“For example, building a culture that supports innovation and entrepreneurship. We want to make sure that we can find risk capital for our entrepreneurs. That was one of the recommendations made in this blueprint.”
Barth isn’t the only one who thinks the culture surrounding the technology sector can be improved. Jim Estep, president and CEO of the High Technology Foundation, said state support in the tech industry is of the utmost importance.
“I would like to see the state adopt a formal strategy for building a business case in the state of West Virginia for knowledge-sector companies,” Estep said. “That business case has to be strong enough to overcome our workforce demographic problem in terms of education attainment. …
“I’m not really seeing that development. We’re doing that here, and it’s well-documented. I would like to see the state be even more involved in helping us to achieve that by supporting our strategy.”
Estep said his biggest hope for the 2020 session is that some sort of legislation will be passed to aid the state’s workforce, not only through education and retention, but through attracting more skilled workers to the area.
“I think the most urgent need is workforce recruitment,” Estep said. “That’s very hard, I understand, because they need to figure out a way to help us recruit workers, but it has to be a coordinated effort.
“We want to recruit them in a way that we can bring them in as needed. It does nobody any good if we bring too many people in and there aren’t enough jobs. …
“We’re having difficulty getting these positions filled, because anybody around here who is qualified already has a job if they want it. It’s such a significant issue for the state of West Virginia that the state has to get involved in addressing the issue.”
To accomplish that feat, Estep suggested offering incentives to both incoming technology workers and companies, thus helping to build the business case for which he and Barth are striving.
“The state should consider a whole portfolio of special tax breaks for workers with certain educational attainment and experience,” Estep said. “For example, maybe they don’t pay income tax for the first year they’re in the state. Maybe they don’t have to pay transfer tax on their vehicles. Special breaks like that will make it even more attractive to come here.”
However, before that, Estep said stabilization of the state’s economy is a must. While he supports abolishing the state’s inventory tax, he said that he’s worried that too fast of a cut could create a pitfall, destabilizing the economy even more.
“I’m not really worried, but I hope that as we continue our efforts as a state to be as tax-friendly as possible, we’re very careful not to do that too quickly,” Estep said. “I know this year’s session is heavy on the inventory tax, which I totally agree is a bad tax, but we have some dependency on it right now.
“We’re not in the best position financially because of the severance taxes on coal and natural gas. I just hope they balance it all carefully.”
Meanwhile, Barth said that she hopes to see further development and support from the state after legislators passed House Bill 2550 in 2019. The bill set up a matching fund program through the West Virginia Development Office for growing businesses throughout the state, and Barth hopes that more money will be given to the program this year.
“The matching fund that they created last year was funded with $500,000, and it’s just now taking effect,” Barth said. “We’ll have great results here shortly to see, but I would like to see them add dollars to that fund so that the matching program will continue past 2020 and 2021 into the coming years. We firmly believe that this is a good way to grow tech in West Virginia…
“It might be a little early to go back and ask them since the program is just taking effect, but I’m positive that this program is going to show solid results, and we urge them to consider adding more funds for that matching program.”
Overall, Barth said she’s optimistic about this session and the future of the tech sector in West Virginia in general, and she hopes this growing industry for the state will soon flourish like she knows it can.
“In general, building out this sector and getting the attention of policymakers is really encouraging, and I hope we’re moving in a direction that does build the culture in this state to help make more of it happen,” Barth said. “We hear a lot more talk now about economic diversification… It seems like there is a good, growing focus among all concerned parties that this is something we need to do to help spur growth in the state’s economy, and I find that very encouraging.”
Fairmont News Editor John Mark Shaver can be reached at 304-844-8485 or firstname.lastname@example.org.