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Tech park marks first year with state

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - One year ago today the state of West Virginia acquired what is now known as the West Virginia Regional Technology Park.

There have been some big changes already at the South Charleston park, and many more are planned.

The biggest change: Building 2000, the office building shaped like an X, is undergoing a top-to-bottom, $26 million renovation.

Another major change: The 258-acre park now has a full-time cheerleader, J. Phillip Halstead. The 61-year-old Halstead has a doctorate in higher education administration and years of experience working with universities and technology projects.

The West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, which guided the park on behalf of the state for most of this year, hired Halstead in August as the park's first-ever executive director after conducting a national search.

Halstead's enthusiasm is infectious. He loves to talk about going "back to the future" - a reference to the days the park employed thousands of well-paid Union Carbide Corp. researchers.

In October he told the Charleston Alliance's annual meeting, "We will produce and rev up an innovation factory for the valley. We have a unique opportunity to create an insanely great tech park."

Nowadays Halstead is fond of calling the park, "The world's friendly front door to chemical innovations." He paints a picture of a big tent, where everyone is welcome.

Yet another change: Last summer the Higher Education Policy Commission passed responsibility for the park's redevelopment to the West Virginia Regional Technology Park Corp., a nonprofit that was established during the last regular session of the Legislature. The corporation's board of directors began meeting in July.

When the state took over the park, 550 people worked there. Today the park provides workspace to 597 people. The largest tenants are the Hewlett-Packard Data Center (which is on the campus but not part of the property conveyed by Dow to the state); Dow Chemical; and the Mid-Atlantic Technology Research and Innovation Center.

The park generates about $5.5 million a year from tenants. That helps pay some of the bills. For example, Halstead's $120,000-a-year salary and benefits come out of park revenue. But the overall park operating budget is about $8.5 million.

The state Legislature approved a $3.5 million supplemental appropriation to help pay for operating expenses this year and it will be asked for $4 million for next year. The goal is to make the park funding-neutral within five years.

So far, the lion's share of money for the park has come from state and federal taxpayers.

Last year when The Dow Chemical gave the park to the state, the company also gave West Virginia $10 million for operating expenses. Then-Gov. Joe Manchin followed that up by committing $12 million in federal stimulus funds.

In September Halstead told the South Charleston Economic Development Committee, "The ecosystem of power is firmly behind this - the power structure wants this to happen." Looking at the sources of money fueling the park's rebirth illustrates the truth of that statement:

 

  • It was decided that the Kanawha Valley Community & Technical College would become a Building 2000 anchor tenant.
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  • The Higher Education Policy Commission decided to build a $15 million training center, to be known as the Advanced Technology Center, where Building 701 once stood. The center will train chemical operators and offer classes in engineering and computer science. It will be the workforce development portion of the park.
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  • In August the U.S. Department of Commerce and the state's congressional delegation announced a $5.25 million federal grant to double the energy efficiency of a laboratory building at the park. The Higher Education Policy Commission will match the federal grant with money the commission has on hand to improve the energy efficiency of buildings.
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    Although there is a lot of momentum, not everything has gone smoothly during the park's first year:

     

  • The wet spring delayed preparation of the site for the Advanced Technology Center. It was originally hoped that a construction contract would be awarded in May, but the bids came in over budget. The design is being re-worked. It is hoped that the project will be re-bid around the first of the year.
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  • Although the state Department of Agriculture is in desperate need of new laboratories and has expressed a desire to move into one of the lab buildings at the park, no visible progress has been made.
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    On Nov. 28, about 90 days after he became executive director, Halstead published a draft of a strategic vision plan for the park. "Anyone who wants it can get a copy," he said. "We want comments." For a copy, email Halstead at phil.halstead@wvrtp.com.

    Halstead said the park has just embarked on the process of procuring a national architectural and engineering firm to develop a comprehensive master plan for the park. "The goal is to have this by the end of 2012," he said.

    Asked to characterize the current situation, Halstead said, "We are mobilizing a community of innovation to recreate the Union Carbide global technical center with 3,000 to 5,000 scientific, engineering and technical support jobs."

    New jobs will start appearing as the three main buildings at the park are refurbished and begin filling up, he said.

    "First is Building 2000, and it fills up with jobs. Then Building 770, and then Building 740, which is already 80 percent full. And the Advanced Technology Center gets done and fills up with jobs.

    "We need to go vertical and put dense, big buildings in our park, then fill them with high-paying jobs," he said. "Reaching a critical mass is directly related to completion of the buildings and the building of new buildings.

    "Concurrent with this, we have to begin marketing in the state, nation and world to get the word out to universities and companies worldwide that we're this friendly front door to chemical innovations with a unique selling proposition - we have four pilot plants and chemical workbenches. We can do bench work, scale up in the pilot plants, and do scale-up on a contract basis."

    One plus for the park is the fact Paul Hill shepherded it from the time the state took over until Halstead was hired. Hill was the Higher Education Policy Commission's vice chancellor for science and research. On Tuesday he was named interim chancellor, effective Jan. 15.

    "Science and technology are my personal passion and what I've been working on for a number of years," Hill said on Wednesday.

    "I do feel the park is on track and while we're often frustrated by the speed of things, when you look back at what we've done the past year, we've accomplished a lot for a fledgling operation.

    "One of the things I'm most pleased about, as I take on new responsibilities, is that we have Phil Halstead," Hill said. "He is a positive addition. He's spent the last 90 days absorbing all of the things going on and is now exerting some leadership in leading the park and all of the activities associated with it. I am pleased we have him on board to take us through this next stage."

    Contact writer George Hohmann at business@dailymail.com or 304-348-4836.

     


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