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Posted February 5, 2011 | comments 2 Comments

Winchester telework center to close

GSA ending contracts with 14 facilities in Virginia on March 31

By James Heffernan -- jheffernan@nvdaily.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member of the House Appropriations Committee, fought to keep NetTech operational, but the centers have simply become outdated.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.

2 Comments | Leave a comment

    With high speed web access any home becomes a satellite office. GSA knows this and this is why they closed these outdated stations.

    What's the ecological point of telecommuting if every such worker is forced to live in the already crowded cities in order to have adequate download speeds on their home computer?

    As a new telecommuter myself, I'm trying to move from Alexandria, VA to the Shenandoah Valley so that I can work from home in the kind of rural and mountainous location that I enjoy. I'm quickly discovering, however, that there are very few rural and/or mountainous locations where DSL access is available, and anything slower than DSL is insufficient for an employee like myself whose work involves frequent large video transfers. Shentel's mobile broadband (maximum theoretical speed of 10Mbps) is not up to the job -- at least not for a company like mine that has quick turnarounds.

    I discovered this article while looking for a way to deal with this very problem. I thought that since I can't seem to get DSL in the places where I want to live, I could perhaps at least get it somewhere nearby in a telework or telecommuting center.

    So thinking, I googled the words "telework" and "Shenandoah Valley."

    Imagine my disappointment when the first online article that turned up (namely, this one) concerned the fact that the government, far from supporting my eco-friendly efforts, is just now getting out of the telecommuting business altogether!

    So it's back to the MLS listings for me, as I continue my search for the holy grail of Shenandoah Valley real estate: a residence that combines a rural location with big-city Internet access.

    First, however, I have a suggestion for the federal government:

    Let's begin treating the Internet Highway system of the 21st century with the same importance that we gave to the Interstate Highway system of the 20th. Let's get rid of all of these embarrassing virtual pot holes, unpaved roads and unbridged rivers. We do want to remain a First World country, don't we? The Information Age is here to stay, after all, and it's time that our public works projects started reflecting that fact. Until then, the government should support telework centers as a sort of workaround solution for telecommuters like myself whose eco-friendly relocation plans are being otherwise stymied by this ongoing inattention to national infrastructure.

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