Ground broken for Innovation Center

The Inter-Mountain photo by Sarah Goodrich The Upshur County Development Authority’s board of directors, state officials’ field representatives and community leaders gather for the Innovation Center’s groundbreaking ceremony Friday afternoon.

BUCKHANNON — The Upshur County Development Authority held a groundbreaking ceremony Friday afternoon as downtown Buckhannon prepares to welcome its newest addition to the corner of Main and Spring streets.

Local officials rallied in support of the new facility – unofficially referred to as the Buckhannon Innovation Center – which is expected to be a pivotal piece in Buckhannon’s growing economy.

“This project has certainly been a wild and challenging ride to get to this point, and we haven’t even started the fun stuff with the construction portion, but we’re extremely excited today to be able to have this event and have this groundbreaking on the site,” said UCDA executive director Rob Hinton.

Hinton explained the UCDA and the city of Buckhannon worked closely together to work on how to redevelop the property. The property originally belonged to the city, which then offered the property as a donation.

“(The city) pretty much made it a real possibility for us to adhere some funding with already having a property commitment as well,” he said. “So it’s really been a team effort along the way.”

Hinton explained the idea for the project came about in early 2015 as a way to enhance economic development in the area.

“As we move further into the 21st century economy we’re going to encounter significant changes and how economies sustain over time,” he said.

Hinton said there will be two paths that economies will take on a global scale — resistance to change or embracing the change.

“We need to embrace change. We need to pivot and we need to maneuver,” he said. “Not only just as Upshur County and Buckhannon, but also as the state of West Virginia.”

Hinton continued, “This is not an easy task. This is the infancy changes of the extinction of what we know as traditional jobs.”

Though the change will not occur over night, Hinton said “it will happen quickly.”

“And it’s our job to make sure we’re putting the right resources in place, building the skills that will be demanded in the 21st century economy,” he said. “We must put all of the pieces together to create an entrepreneurial ecosystem that rivals those located in Boston and even Silicon Valley right here in West Virginia.”

Hinton referred to a statistic that reports four out of five college graduates leave West Virginia within one year of graduating.

“The most harmful extractive activity West Virginia suffers from is the extractions of people,” he said. “And we’ve got to figure out a way to mitigate that and ultimately stop that and reverse that.”

As a catalyst, Hinton said, the innovation center is a “fundamental foundation to which we build and expand the resources, partnerships and skills to compete with the 21st century economy.”

“Telework and telecommute have grown 115 percent in the past 10 years, and last year each industry saw remote job listings grow more than 20 percent and we’re only going to see significant growth in the future,” Hinton said.

With the innovation center, Hinton said, “We’ll have professionally modern space with fiber gigabit connectivity.”

“This facility will also be a catalyst for Citynet, a local provider, to begin their fiber to the premise build out of Buckhannon, where Buckhannon will become a gigabit city,” he said.

Hinton said the combination will allow the area to have an increased opportunity to recruit back office operations.

“This is a reality — major corporations are looking to locate back office operations outside of high cost metro areas to more low cost and less-congested areas where their employees can actually afford to live,” he explained.

West Virginia Wesleyan College president Joel Thierstein agreed with Hinton on how the workforce will change in the near future, saying by 2030 it is projected that 25 percent of the workforce will be working from home.

“Innovation and creativity are valued more than it’s ever been in the history of the world, and that’s what we do at West Virginia Wesleyan and that’s what we do here in Buckhannon. We’re innovative and we’re creative,” Thierstein said. “… This is where the future of small town America is and this makes small town America great. It keeps us at the center and focused on what America is and what America will be in the future.”

Hinton said the innovation center will be a three-story, 24,000 square-feet structure with construction work being done by Dan Hill Construction. Construction is estimated to begin in the next 30 days, he said.

Field representatives for Sen. Joe Manchin, Sen, Shelley Moore Capito and Congressman Alex Mooney read aloud letters of support from the state officials. Gov. Jim Justice’s Chief of State Mike Hall also expressed the governor’s support for the new addition.