Before it's over, Virginia Gov. Charles Robb may wish he had chosen Richmond as the location for the controversial Center for Innovative Technology.
Almost a year after the governor announced that the $30 million center will be built on property near Dulles International Airport in Northern Virginia, disputes over several issues, real and imagined, threaten to put the CIT on hold indefinitely. Although it still is only a concept, the CIT is starting to take on the appearance of Frankenstein's monster.
The underlying problem goes beyond the apparent imbroglio over a precise location for the CIT, or plans for commercial development on an adjoining site, or the cost and responsibility for building access roads to the center. The basic problem now is essentially the same as it was more than a year ago, when the CIT was the subject of intense intrastate lobbying by politicians and business leaders who were vying to have it built in their respective regions.
Although the CIT was touted from the outset as a major drawing card for luring high-technology jobs to the state, nobody really ever defined its purpose or explained its eventual function in a way that would have avoided the spread of so many misconceptions. And that, perhaps more than anything, is why the CIT is being held hostage by confusion, ignorance and petty parochial politics.
Only when the CIT's purpose is clearly defined is it likely to fill the bill as a catalyst for expansion of the high-technology industry in the state.
"It's still a concept that takes some explaining," a state official conceded the other day. "I know the academicians at the universities know what their roles will be. The question is: How will the facility function in Northern Virginia?"
The better question may be, how will the facility function for the state? Will it be, as preliminary planning indicated, a link between the high-tech sector and state universities' research divisions and a clearinghouse for industry-subsidized research? Or will it be developed essentially as a research center designed to form the base for a major concentration of high-tech companies?
If the CIT had been planned as an agency to coordinate the exchange of information and resources among the high-technology industry, the academic community and government, it could have been built in Richmond, where most state agencies are located. A decision to build the CIT in Richmond might have muted regional hostilities and averted disputes over the present site.
On the other hand, if the original plan called for an expanded role for the CIT -- as the nucleus of the state's biggest concentration of high-technology companies, for example -- then the site near Dulles would be the logical choice.
The problem, however, is that the CIT remains a concept in search of comprehensive planning. In the absence of such planning, Northern Virginia officials, especially those in Fairfax County, are blaming Robb for not arbitrating disputes over the precise location of the center and road construction and development plans for sites adjacent to land donated for construction of the CIT.
The fact that the 35-acre parcel that landowners donated for the CIT straddles the boundary separating Fairfax and Loudoun counties adds to the complexity, though the site selection may have been politically astute for several reasons.
A state official, who asked that he not be identified, termed the current dispute as "basically, a kind of tempest in a teapot." The same official insisted that the governor "has not washed his hands" of the CIT -- as some Northern Virginia officials believe -- now that funding for it has been approved. "He's not going to sit around and watch [the disputes] fester," the state official promised.
Some observers have suggested that in its zeal to win the CIT, Northern Virginia may have been blinded to the fact that the center may bring it little beyond a temporary measure of prestige. These same observers base their skepticism on statistics that show that high-tech industries, despite the glamor attached to them, do not produce vast numbers of jobs. In fact, high-tech industries account for about one of eight jobs. Realistically, few areas can expect to duplicate the unique set of circumstances that produced California's Silicon Valley, the high-tech community in Boston's Route 128 corridor or North Carolina's Research Triangle.
It's possible that the CIT could spawn a limited version of one of those high-tech communities, but, before that can occur, a conclusion of the Virginia Governor's Task Force on Science and Technology needs to be put in perspective.
"There must be effective partnerships among business, education and government," the task force cautioned two years ago in a report that led to the establishment of the CIT. "The burdens -- including the financial burden -- must be shared, as well as the opportunities. Narrow parochial concerns, regional and institutional jealousies, will destroy the prospect of effective action."