Local business leaders host conference about economic development

MORGANTOWN — About 120 Interstate 79 corridor business leaders — from Clarksburg to Pittsburgh — gathered at WVU’s Erickson Alumni Center on Wednesday for a luncheon look at area economic growth.

The meeting was called “The I-79 Corridor: Developing North Central West Virginia and Western Pennsylvania.” It was hosted by the Pittsburgh chapter of the Society for Marketing Professional Services and was the chapter’s first such gathering outside  greater Pittsburgh.

Morgantown Chamber of Commerce President and meeting moderator Stephen LaCagnin summed up the positive vibe: “We can see economic development here has taken off like it’s on steroids.”

The five panelists opened by reviewing developments in their particular areas. Randy Hudak, WVU’s senior associate vice president of Facilities and Services, talked about the plan to demolish Stansbury Hall to make room for a new Business and Economics school building.

“It’s the most complex project we’ve ever done,” he said. The complexity stems partly from the historic nature of the building — the former basketball field house — and partly from the logistics: Its location between busy Beechurst Avenue and the river and adjacent to the PRT.

Nearby Hodges Hall will be gutted and renovated for classrooms and office space, he said. And the PRT is being upgraded. Right now, PRT work isn’t visible: The electronics and computer systems. This summer, cars will be replaced.

Looking ahead, merely in the conceptual phase, he said, much student housing is outdated, as is the Mountainlair. WVU is considering opportunities to upgrade and expand the student center.

Holly Childs, director of business development and external relations for WestRidge Inc., mentioned the $400 million in planned construction for the WestRidge Business and Retail park, off the new I-79 University Towne Centre exit. The park is one of five WestRidge development “neighborhoods” planned for the area, covering more than 1,000 acres.

Asked what’s been driving the growth, Joshua Lavrinc, CEO of The Power of 32 Site Development Fund, which finances site preparation for business and industry in 32 counties in four states, said higher education and the shale gas boom are largely responsible. Higher education draws talent and drives growth and investment.

Morgantown, Childs said, is more economically diverse than much of the rest of the state, with medicine, high-tech, research,  and pharmaceuticals all contributing.

Panelists emphasized that area economic growth transcends state borders. “We are one region,” Childs said.

Among the inhibitors to growth, said Martin Howe, Clarksburg city manager, is the opioid epidemic. Among the many problems it causes, people with drug use issues are unemployable.

Lavrinc focused on site development and certification — a process of ensuring infrastructure is in place so ground is ready for businesses to set down. Ohio pours money into this. “There are other states, like West Virginia, that maybe don’t have enough.”

Childs pointed out that development in West Virginia is pricier than in states with plenty of flat ground.

Panelists mentioned the governor’s push at the beginning of year to put money into the Commerce Department for site certification. That was among the tax and development initiatives that were set aside to find money for the teacher and state employee raise packages following the nine-day school employee walkout that jammed the Capitol with protestors.

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