GSA ending contracts with 14 facilities in Virginia on March 31
By James Heffernan -- email@example.com
WINCHESTER -- A local resource for commuters and small-business startups will close at the end of this month.
The NetTech Center at 2281 Valley Ave. is one of 14 telework centers in the Washington metro area whose contracts with the U.S. General Services Administration will end March 31.
"Basically, GSA decided they no longer want to be in the business of operating telework centers," said Linda Whitmer, who has served as director of the NetTech Center for 15 years.
Whitmer said she considered taking the venture private, but the costs, including replacing the furniture and equipment on loan, would have been too high.
"Only a few of our clients would be able to stay on board and pay us directly," she said.
The NetTech Center currently houses 18 full- and part-time clients who share office space and amenities, including two conference rooms, a kitchen, copiers, fax machines and computers with high-speed Internet connections.
Whitmer said GSA's occupancy rates have spiked in recent years, reaching a hefty $92 a day for private-sector clients in 2010.
"If we had been able to retain those people and found a way to lower those rates, I think we could have survived. ... We tried, but the numbers just didn't work."
The center, which opened in 1993 as the Shenandoah Valley Telecommuting Center in downtown Winchester, was the first federally funded telework center in the U.S. It began as a pilot program for government employees with the support of Rep. Frank Wolf, R-10th. A few years later, Congress opened the facilities to nongovernment workers and eventually turned them over to GSA.
Wolf's chief of staff, Dan Scandling, said Wednesday the congressman, a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, fought to keep NetTech operational, but the centers have simply become outdated.
"Technology has passed them by," Scandling said. "With more and more people having Internet in their homes ... you can't continue to justify people using these centers."
Whitmer disagrees, saying not everyone in Frederick County and surrounding areas has Internet access, and even those who do may want to keep their home and work lives separate.
She said she has always considered NetTech to be an asset to the region, helping reduce traffic congestion, air emissions and driver stress as well as improve its clients' quality of life.
"We help them get to work quickly, be productive and get home for the kid's soccer game," she said.
In addition, as a project of the Winchester-Frederick County Economic Development Commission, the center has helped a number of local businesses get off the ground. For a time, it housed the region's first small-business incubator, WIRE.
Whitmer is one of two staff members who will lose their jobs when NetTech closes, but she is busy working with other co-work facilities in the area such as the Bright Center to ensure that residents of the northern valley can continue to telecommute.