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Army biometric center could be located in city

by Jim Fisher

STAFF WRITER

CLARKSBURG -- City officials confirmed Wednesday that the former Central Junior High School site is in the running to be the permanent home of a new U.S. Army Biometric Fusion Center.

The site is about 3 acres, bordered by U.S. 50, the Clarksburg Parking Building and the First United Methodist Church on Second Street.

The city has asked for about $3 million from the state's Economic Development Grant Committee to clear the site for future development, said City Manager Tom Vidovich. The idea is to get the property ready for a developer, such as the U.S. Army, to move right in and build, Vidovich said.

"We do know that the site is one of the sites being looked at by the consultant for the Army as the permanent site for the Biometric Fusion Center," Vidovich said. "We know they're looking for a 100,000-square-foot building and related parking."

Vidovich said the consultants have been in town "at least four times" looking at numerous sites. The center is expected to bring upward of 200 new jobs to the area.

The interim biometric operation located at Harrison-Marion Regional Airport opened in 2000. It employs 25 and specializes in finding military applications for off-the-shelf biometric software. Biometrics is an identification technology that uses body characteristics, such as fingerprints or iris patterns.

Although U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd has announced that the permanent center will be somewhere in the state, no site has been selected.

North Central West Virginia makes the most sense to local officials, given the closeness of the FBI's fingerprint center and West Virginia University, which has a related forensic identification program. The I-79 High Technology Park in Marion County also has several biometric-related companies.

"This all leads back to when Sen. Byrd brought the military leaders here," said Councilman Jim Hunt. "He saw a vision for this area and I think that's why we're where we are today."

But even if the site is not chosen for the biometric center, promoting the site for other government or private agencies is crucial for the city's downtown revitalization efforts, said Economic and Community Development Director Mark Abbott.

"In order to revitalize the downtown, you have to have foot traffic and that comes in two forms: People working in downtown and people coming into downtown as a destination," Vidovich said. "Government jobs are extremely critical to bringing the downtown back because they add to the critical mass of jobs that will bring the specialty shops back to downtown."

City officials concede the heyday is long gone of downtown Clarksburg as a retail center, dominated by department stores such as Sears and JC Penney.

However, if the state and federal governments can be enticed into putting offices here, that will complement the area's other efforts, such as revitalizing the Waldo Hotel and Glen Elk and extending the Rails to Trails into downtown, Abbott said

With enough government and other professional jobs in downtown, the need for restaurants and other specialty shops will provide the other aspect of revitalization, he said.

"You have to look at the reality of the situation. We have zero chance of locating the new Target in downtown, or the new Lowe's," Hunt said. "Spending time and money trying to figure out how to bring these stores in is a waste. But we have millions of dollars in infrastructure already here that is excellent for office space. We've really found our niche in government and other office space, restaurants and specialty shops."

Staff writer Jim Fisher can be reached at 626-1446 or by e-mail at jfisher@exponent-telegram.com

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