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To expand its Southern West Virginia outreach and consolidate its satellite efforts in and around the capital city, West Virginia University officials have spent recent months establishing a central physical presence and identity in downtown Charleston.

Finishing touches got underway late last year on the renovation of the Equities House building at the corner of Virginia and Dickinson streets (the foot of the Southside Bridge), to open, at the outset, offices for WVU’s William J. Maier Jr. College of Law, the John Chambers College of Business and Economics and the WVU Extension Service.

The initial estimated renovation cost for the Equities House project was $750,000 (excluding the expenses of a five-year lease), funded through private financial support and existing university resources in the city, according to a WVU release.

Space in the 19,000-square-foot building has been allocated for legal education classes and certificate courses through the College of Law.

“We can also be a resource and a hub for law students working at the State Capitol and in the area’s law firms and legal aid organizations,” former College of Law Dean Gregory Bowman said last year.

The WVU Extension Service and its ancillary programs, such as the Family Nutrition Program, SNAP-Ed and After School Network, have relocated westward to the downtown location from their Kanawha City offices of the past decade.

When the project was announced formally in 2019, WVU President E. Gordon Gee extolled Charleston as West Virginia’s “business and cultural heart,” adding, “While West Virginia University has always been in the Charleston region in some capacity, this new venture provides a consolidated and multifaceted presence that will allow the university to serve its constituents better and create a base of operations that will greatly benefit the region and the state.”

The Encova Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation

The John Chambers College of Business and Economics’ development of an incubator space for start-up businesses is a major component of the Charleston location.

Community engagement, entrepreneurial education and economic development are the self-declared three pillars of WVU’s Encova Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. The COVID-19 crisis has created new challenges for its principals to reckon with in the midst of the Charleston move-in.

In April, the Encova Center and its parent entity, the Chambers College, launched a series of services for small businesses around the state that were faltering economically due to the pandemic. A Small Business Assistance Program was developed, designed to help small businesses and nonprofits with loan application assistance, business planning, financing, marketing and other services.

Administered in partnership with the Small Business Administration and Small Business Development Center, services are being implemented using a social distancing protocol.

In May, the center hosted a series of eight Zoom webinars to inform business owners of measures to return to operations through the state’s phased reopening plan.

Javier Reyes, dean of the Chambers College and vice president for Startup West Virginia, said the idea to open Charleston offices for the college of business and economics was “to have an outpost, basically, where we could present our resources to the community. We were going to lead — and still plan to lead — with that, once the COVID-19 [restrictions] dissipate.

“The idea is also to support small businesses by providing a presence where we can go down to Charleston and make some of our resources available,” Reyes said. “In the space, we hope to be able to house perhaps two to four small startup businesses to have their operational space before they open their own business.

“The idea is not only to do this from the perspective of the Encova Center from WVU. We also have good working relationships with other institutions across the state. We have several partnership opportunities to work with different universities, for example,” the dean said.

WV Forward Initiative

To further that goal, Reyes has been pursuing more collaboration with Marshall University and state agencies.

The WV Forward Initiative is a collaboration of WVU, Marshall University, the West Virginia Department of Commerce and other entities to spur growth and development opportunities statewide.

“Having an outpost for the Chambers College allows us to provide some support for different businesses,” Reyes said. “We have the expertise and know-how to help them. Most of the connections we have now are closer to Morgantown, but we hope, being at the Equities House, we’ll be able to do more of that throughout the region in Charleston.”

Vantage Ventures

Last fall, the Chambers College introduced Vantage Ventures in Morgantown. Its mission is to build companies and accelerate economic opportunities throughout the Mountain State.

At its Sunnyside headquarters, The Vantage Point houses 8,000 square feet of space for business building and co-working, and it contains an experiential classroom for students to work with startups. It will also be a contributor to and resource for the Chambers College’s Charleston endeavors.

“That was part of the Equities House vision before and during the pandemic,” said Reyes. “Vantage Ventures houses startups for some students, and it attracts some people outside of the university in that space. We were thinking some of those startups may not be ideal to be located in Morgantown. Some startups may be ideally located in Charleston. At the Equities House, they could be located there and helped remotely through Vantage Ventures or visits from people there.

“Sometimes, location does matter for your clients and startup. Is it better to be in Morgantown or the Charleston area? That’s something we know we could actively have in Charleston.”

Vantage Ventures could help, he said, by offering remote support “as well as having a presence [on site] every now and then or for those who could sometimes come to their offices in Morgantown.”

Business classes

The dean said plans continue to offer onsite business classes in Charleston as well. “The Chambers College is not currently offering credit courses there,” he said, “but perhaps we’ll have some CPA training space and noncredit-bearing classes, for example.

“At the moment, with COVID-19, everybody is trying to do more online or remotely. The [Charleston] space isn’t what we use currently, but, post-COVID-19, we can use that space for some programs we would have.

“Through the Vantage Ventures infrastructure and other agencies, we’re working to figure out how to stream technology out into economic opportunities. The idea when John Chambers decided to partner with the university was not only providing his name to the business school, but to also create a movement of disruptive innovation for the state of West Virginia — not WVU, but for the state.

“How could we make West Virginia a startup state? By using WVU resources and align them to startup opportunities and try to bring more economic value situations to the state,” Reyes said.

“My job is really connecting the dots among the different areas. I meet every week with the Economic Development Office and people from WVU, manufacturing, the Energy Institute and brownfield development. We’re brainstorming specific ideas on how to provide more resources for companies to move to West Virginia and for industries to thrive in West Virginia.”

Reyes said he also foresees the Chambers College developing a wide-ranging partnership and collaboration with its fellow tenants at the College of Law at the Charleston offices.

“The law school hopes to have clinics to provide the students,” he said. “Law school students could be located in Charleston, working with different firms or government entities. The dean thought it would be a great fit having space for the law school at Equities House. He asked if the business school would consider having activities there and I said, ‘Sure.’ That’s how we came along.” 

He said he believes WVU’s government relations team and area accounting firms will also benefit in a variety of ways from the geographic convenience of the central Charleston location.