Washington County investors group expanding businesses catering to energy industry

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Seven years ago, Big Jim, a 20-foot metal cowboy, was rescued from eBay and installed at the entrance of the Bentleyville Best Western Garden Inn Hotel.

With a pistol drawn in one hand and a rifle in the other, he's defended the hotel and for the past two years kept an eye on renovations at the former RC Cola factory nearby. That property, renamed Big Jim's Plaza, is readying to open this spring or summer. It, along with several other related ventures owned by a group of Washington County physicians, is courting the oil and gas crowd.

In fact, the tenants currently committed to the plaza are spinoffs from the owner's other ventures.

Kam Gosai, one of the property owners, and his son Tejas Gosai, who manages the Best Western, Holiday Inn Express in Bentleyville and a handful of other hotels through his company Shale Hotels, have invested in several businesses to leverage the needs and wallets of the region's burgeoning oil and gas industry.

Shale Media Group, Mr. Gosai's marketing company, runs two dozen websites aggregating oil and gas news, producing original content and giving plugs to companies that sign marketing agreements with the firm. It owns more than 470 domain names, securing every imaginable iteration of the words "shale" and "news."

Then there's the compressed natural gas fueling station they're building near the Bentleyville hotels.

For a brief time, Mr. Gosai was part-owner of a catering company that served well workers.

Dr. Gosai and his partners have owned Big Jim's Plaza for 13 years, but when Mr. Gosai moved back to the area to manage the hotels, he looked at it the way he looks at everything now: with gas-colored glasses.

Renovation on the 29,000-square-foot building began in 2010. There was talk of selling to an oil and gas service company, but in the end, the owners kept the building. Its space would boost their existing ventures and house some new ones, they reasoned.

Currently, the plaza has three tenants: the Holiday Inn Express, adjacent to the plaza, will use it as an annex for banquets and conference events; the Best Western will store trucks and equipment there; and the new Shale Energy Institute will be headquartered there.

The Shale Energy Institute is a joint venture between the hotel owners, Mr. Gosai, and Cory Wilbanks, who developed the oil and gas curriculum for Western Area Career & Technical School in Canonsburg. Last year, he decided he wanted to run his own school.

The Shale Energy Institute's certification for commercial drivers, with a focus on oil and gas, was recently approved by the state.

Mr. Wilbanks' goal is to train people to be two-in-one oil and gas workers.

"You have to be able to transport the equipment that you'll be working on at the [well site]," he said. "When you can do that, you can provide a company with two employees for the price of one."

Mr. Wilbanks said he has unofficial agreements with several natural gas service companies interested in his students, whom he anticipates will be offered jobs "inside of 24 hours of graduating."

Because the school just received its certification, it hasn't enrolled any students. But Mr. Wilbanks expects the first class, scheduled to begin in mid-February, will include about 10 students. Until Big Jim's Plaza is finished, the school will be staged inside the Holiday Inn.

In the future, students who travel to Bentleyville from far enough away to warrant overnight stays will be steered to the Holiday Inn Express and the Best Western through discounted rates.

"It's just implied that it will be good for the business in the hotels," Mr. Gosai said.

There is still plenty of unleased space at Big Jim's Plaza. Mr. Gosai is courting a barbecue restaurant and bar that caters to the oil and gas industry as well as other businesses in need of office space.

Anya Litvak: alitvak@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1455

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