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West Virginia: Technology-Related Sectors Represent New Economic Focus

Apr/May 09
Although not immune to the effects of the economic downturn, West Virginia is faring better than most states right now. Its unemployment rate, while rising, remains lower than the national average, and it is one of the few states expecting to end its fiscal year this June with a budget surplus. International trade is particular bright spot, with West Virginia exports in 2008 totaling $5.6 billion, a 41 percent increase over 2007.

A concerted effort to shake off the Mountain State's "back country" stereotype appears to be paying off as the state's "new economy" takes shape. While still heavily dependent on the coal industry - which generates more than $3.5 billion annually in gross state product and directly accounts for over 40,000 jobs and two-thirds of business taxes collected in the state - West Virginia continues to diversify its industrial base with an emphasis on research and technology.

"Technology-based economic development is an economic imperative," says Kevin DiGregorio, executive director of TechConnect West Virginia, a coalition of professionals dedicated to growing and diversifying the state's technology base. In March 2009, the group released a blueprint for achieving this goal, compiled with the assistance of the Battelle Technology Partnership Practice. The report identified four areas where the state has the best chances for high-tech success:

• advanced energy and energy-related technology;
• advanced materials and chemicals;
• identification, security, and sensing technology (biometrics);
• molecular diagnostics, therapeutics, and targeted delivery systems.

Even the coal industry in West Virginia has become much more high-tech, attracting investments in clean-coal technologies, coal liquefaction, and a range of byproducts from wallboard production to chemicals and plastics. TransGas Development Systems LLC, based in New York City, selected Mingo County's new energy park near Gilbert as the site for a $3 million coal-to-liquids plant that is expected to generate 3,000 jobs during construction and up to 200 after the facility is complete in 2013. This is the second coal-to-liquids plant announced in the state.

Virginia-based software developer Platinum Solutions selected Bridgeport in north-central West Virginia for its first satellite office, which opened in December to fulfill a major federal government contract in the area. The company is currently ramping up its work force, which will total about 100. Marketing manager Mandy Owens says that the company has a very rigorous recruiting process and has been hiring information technology specialists locally but also nationwide. "We have a lot of people that are from West Virginia but don't live there currently and want to move back home," she says. "We're also hiring people who may live in a big city and just want a quieter pace of life."

Alliant Techsystems, also a government contractor, is expanding its operations at Mineral County's Rocket Center at the Allegheny Ballistics Laboratory with two new facilities - one that will manufacture composite rotor tubes used in the nuclear power industry, and one that will produce composite aircraft parts for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Together these operations will create about 200 new jobs. The company, which employs about 1,500 there, has not felt the effects of the economic downturn. "We have a different customer," says marketing manager Gary Geiger.

Business services is another industry making itself at home in West Virginia. TRG Customer Solutions is in the midst of adding about 350 product and technical support specialists to its call centers in Charleston and Beckley to meet the needs of a major telecommunications client, bringing its total work force in the state to about 800.  

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