This story appears in this week’s State Journal.
By Jim Ross
CHARLESTON — Experts say the national economy is coming out of a recession. Some signs of that can be seen in the activity at the Charleston Area Alliance, the economic development agency of Kanawha County.
For the three years before the recession, “it was like we couldn’t keep up with the prospects that were coming in,” Ballard said. The Alliance received inquiries from back-office operations, IT centers and food processors, he said. But in 2008, that fell off.
During the recession, the Alliance encouraged local businesses to investigate the possibility of increasing exports as a way of growing their markets. Ballard said he also did a lot of on-site visits to local businesses to see how the Alliance could help them.
“You begin to focus on entrepreneurship and retaining the businesses you already have,” he said.
Things have started to pick up in recent months, Ballard said. Companies plan investments six months to a year or more ahead, so the recent inquiries are good signs things will change soon, Ballard said.
“Now what we’re seeing is a lot of calls on energy things such as the Marcellus shale and opportunities like the tech park,” Ballard said.
The Marcellus shale drilling activity is to the north of Kanawha County, but a byproduct of that activity could be important to Kanawha Valley industries, Ballard said. That byproduct is ethane, which can be used as a feedstock for chemicals that are used in a variety of products made in the valley, he said.
Entrepreneurship is on the rebound with the economy, Ballard said. In late 2008, the Alliance had the lowest occupancy rate ever in its small business incubator in Charleston. Now that has turned around and occupancy is at an all-time high.
The Alliance recently received a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission to build out the fourth floor of its building so it can expand the incubator, he said.
The key to entrepreneurship and job creation in the Kanawha Valley is the tech center at the former Union Carbide site, Ballard said.
“It’s absolutely critical. It can’t fail. It’s too important,” he said.
Inventors may invent a new product or process and have the first demonstration in the size of a handheld container, but to get financing for full production they will need to show its viability on a larger scale. That’s where the tech park comes in, he said.
“We need to get some venture capitalists on site or interest in the project going,” Ballard said. “You’ve got to have people to fund these new ideas, and we have very little of that in the state.”
The Alliance is following the progress of two bills in the Legislature, as each would help the state attract and retain industries and educated people, Ballard said.
One is a bill that would give two-year tax breaks to people who earn degrees. The other would provide tax credits for companies that create jobs in industries that do not exist in the state now, such as nanotechnology and cloud computing, Ballard said.