In his enthusiasm to emphasize the significance of Tuesday's disclosure of plans by the Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA) to build a top-secret supercomputer research center in Prince George's County, a Maryland official shared an apocryphal account of a meeting that preceded the announcement by several weeks.
A person close to the project, the official recalled, announced to those at the meeting that the research center's goal is to produce a computer capable of doing computations faster than the speed of light. Another person attending the meeting reportedly replied: "God hasn't made anything on earth faster than the speed of light."
"God ordered this computer," the first speaker shot back.
"And God is doing this for Prince George's County," the Maryland official recalled thinking at the time.
Obviously elated over the county's coup in landing the ambitious Supercomputing Research Center, the official termed it "a significant economic development achievement for Prince George's County and the state."
That bit of understatement appears to be the official line in the county, though several officials privately thumped their chests in triumph in the aftermath of Tuesday's announcement. County Executive Parris Glendening avoided the temptation of provincialism, however, by putting the development in a broader perspective. "Fairfax will catch us soon," Glendening deadpanned to a chorus of laughter, while responding to a woman who wanted to know if the SRC would make Prince George's County competitive with Northern Virginia's Fairfax County in attracting high-technology firms.
"No, I don't really see that kind of competition," a more serious Glendening continued. "We're really looking for a much more diversified base in the economy, and we have that. We've had tremendous success recently, but nothing of this magnitude at all. This certainly puts us at the center of high-tech activity in the area.
"Whether or not we're involved in some sort of race, I don't envision that. My feeling is that when one jurisdiction does well in this type of development in the metropolitan area, or even, for that matter, in any part of Maryland, we all do. . . . We're really one economy, and I'm pleased that Prince George's has the SRC ."
Color that a class act.
In speculating on the growth potential for high technology in Prince George's, a study the Greater Washington Research Center released Tuesday noted that there is a nucleus of firms and governmental facilities in the county that could attract more technology-oriented firms. Others have speculated as much in recent years. Nation's Business, a publication of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, suggested three years ago, for example, that with more than 100 high-tech companies operating in the county, and with the presence there of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, "Prince George's may develop into another Silicon Valley."
Few experts would go that far, though economic development officials and business leaders in metropolitan Washington are dedicated to turning the region around the Beltway into a competitive high-tech center.
The so-called "critical-mass" phenomenon -- the condition in which a large concentration of high-technology companies serves as an attraction for others to settle in an area -- already exists here. Nonetheless, the region hasn't been identified closely with major research universities with strong faculties and reputations in science and technology, such as Harvard, Stanford and universities near North Carolina's Research Triangle.
That is no longer true, however. The emergence of the University of Maryland as a highly rated institution in the fields of computer science and engineering has changed that perspective. Prince George's County was chosen as the location for the SRC, in fact, because of IDA's and the Department of Defense's desire to capitalize on the strengths of computer science programs at nearby University of Maryland and Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University. A 1983 ranking by the National Academy of Sciences showed that the University of Maryland had the sixth best state-university computer science program in the nation and that its computer science graduate programs ranked among the top 20 in the nation.
In recognizing those strengths, the IDA not only gave a tremendous boost to Prince George's County's quest to broaden its high-tech base, but also possibly forged the missing link that the entire region had sought.
Glendening is correct, therefore, in his assessment of the real significance Tuesday's announcement has for the region. What this will mean to Prince George's County in jobs and spinoff development cannot be fully estimated at this stage, county officials say. The best estimate is that the SRC will act as a catalyst for the development of nearly 5 million square feet of space for offices and research development near the facility's site in the Maryland Science and Technology Center near Bowie.
In the long term, however, Prince George's plum, in the form of the SRC, will likely become the key filling for the region's high-tech and economic development pie.