Capital Buzz: George Mason U. looks for space in Tysons Corner

October 16, 2011

The Buzz caught up with Alan Merten, 69, who is leaving the presidency of George Mason University next June after 16 years.

Merten, who earns about $750,000 a year in salary and incentives, grew the GMU budget from $200 million to $900 million during his tenure, and boosted enrollment from 22,000 to almost 34,000.

He is a computer scientist by training and a former business school dean (University of Florida, Cornell). Here are some snippets from our conversation.

Any scoops?

We are seriously looking at having a physical presence in Tysons Corner. I anticipate management and information technology courses will be taught there.

Biggest mistake?

Not recognizing right away how important it was to thank and motivate people.

Biggest accomplishments?

Recruitment of talent to the university. I am known as ‘The Closer.” Among others, I brought Lance Liotta and Chip Petricoin, two guys from the National Institutes of Health, here to lead the microbiology department.

Yes, but you lost basketball coach Jim Larranaga (to the University of Miami) and professor Richard Florida (to the University of Toronto).

I was sad to lose Jim, and it’s great to have [new coach] Paul Hewitt.

When is GMU going to get a big-time college football team?

Not as long as I’m president. So few universities with football teams even get close to breaking even. If you are not careful, it takes away from the academic mission.

What needs to be done to improve the local economy?

We have got to work harder to attract Fortune 500 companies. We went through a period of time when we lived on our past successes. We are not aggressive enough.

What will you be doing after you leave?

I’m going to have a university appointment and probably teach some classes on leadership in higher education. I’m on a couple of boards and am probably going to join one or two more.

A bouquet for H. Bloom

Tiny Jewel Box and the national flower service H. Bloom hosted the release of Nancy Clarke’s new book, “My First Ladies,” which documents her time as the chief White House florist through six administrations. Everyone was hitting up Clarke for some inside gossip, but we hear she didn’t give it up. Suppose that’s a job requirement.

Former White House Social Secretary Amy Zantzinger (Bush II) hosted with TJB President Matthew Rosenheim and H. Bloom D.C. head Sean Wainwright , a former attorney who was tapped to run H. Bloom’s Washington business.

The Oct. 12 event kicked off TJB’s holiday shopping season and marked H. Bloom’s entry into this market.

The Buzz Hears:

The Ritz-Carlton Georgetown is closing its Fahrenheit restaurant and turning it into permanent banquet rental space known as — you guessed it — the Fahrenheit Ballroom. The transformation will be unveiled Nov. 1.

Local investor Manny Friedman is making the rounds on Capitol Hill, where he has met with Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) and Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), to talk about his fix for the housing crisis. Friedman also met with Jeff Zients, formerly of the Corporate Executive Board and now deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget.

Riot Act, the new comedy club owned by restaurant entrepreneur Geoff Dawson, has stolen Heather Westrom from The Nationals baseball team to help run in-house events. The Fan — the 106.7 radio station — already has booked the E Street NW club for its Super Bowl party with The Junkies.

Germantown-based Earth Networks has nailed another five-year contract with the Maryland Emergency Management Agency to supply technology to aid emergency management operations throughout the state. Public agencies use Earth Network’s hyper-local weather stations to track severe weather. No details on the deal size.

RideCharge , the Alexandria-based startup responsible for Taxi Magic, the iPhone and Android app that allows people to book taxi rides on the go, has signed deals with 20 new taxi fleets since summer, bringing its U.S. network to 75 fleets. Taxi Magic has added 10 employees since August, increasing the staff to 25. The company was founded by serial entrepreneur T om DePasquale.

Times Square it ain’t — at least not yet

Ted Leonsis wants to put some bright lights on the Southwest corner of his Verizon Center.

His Monumental Sports & Entertainment , the holding company for the building, the Capitals and the Wizards, has applied to the District government for a zoning variance that would allow a big sign for the corner of 7 and F streets NW.

“We would like to put digital displays on it,” said Monumental executive vice president Randall Boe. “We would sell ads on it, starting with sponsors from inside the building.”

Boe said the sign should draw more people, more tourists and more nightlife to Gallery Place.

And how big a screen would that be?

Boe said they haven’t decided.

Thomas Heath is a local business reporter and columnist, writing about entrepreneurs and various companies big and small in the Washington Metropolitan area. Previously, he wrote about the business of sports for The Post’s sports section for most of a decade.
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