An aerospace company consortium's decision to locate a new computer software research facility in Northern Virginia raises some intriguing questions about the site selection process.
The decision represents a major victory in the state's efforts to attract high-technology companies, says Virginia's director of industrial development. It does, indeed.
How Virginia scored that victory is open to question, nonetheless. It is unlikely, however, that we ever will know why the executive committee of the Software Productivity Consortium decided to locate the facility in Northern Virginia. That is "proprietary" information, we are told. What's more, the consortium doesn't want to become involved in a "contest" with communities that had been in contention for the SPC.
Actually, Virginia officials aren't certain why their state was chosen, according to Scott Eubanks, director of the division of industrial development. "Obviously, we think our package was better and we did a good job in presenting it," said Eubanks.
The same argument could be made, and justifiably so, by state officials in Maryland and California where Montgomery County and San Diego were considered the leading contenders for the SPC until just before last week's announcement that the research facility would be built on a site in Fairfax County.
Montgomery and Fairfax counties are among the most affluent areas in the country. There is very little to choose between the two in assessing the quality of life. Both have highly skilled work forces, expanding critical masses of high-technology companies and excellent business climates.
On balance, however, Montgomery County appeared to have the edge in its bid to lure the SPC. The best barometer of the choice is the SPC's criteria for a site location. It is instructive, to say the least.
Emphasizing the importance of the quality of life, the consortium insisted that it needed to be near a major university with strong computer science curricula, especially in graduate studies. Moreover, according to the criteria checklist, universities near the SPC must be willing to offer special support to the consortium, such as interaction with faculty and the use of facilities, equipment and other resources.
If having access to a major university with a strong computer science curricula is vital to the SPC, then its choice of Northern Virginia is baffling. None of the state's major universities with strong nationally recognized research programs is in Northern Virginia. So, how do you get around that problem if you're committed to locating the SPC in Northern Virginia? If you're V. Edward Jones, chairman of the SPC executive committee, you suggest to Virginia Gov. Charles Robb that he propose a joint venture to his friend, Harry Hughes, the governor of Maryland.
After all, the University of Maryland could provide what's missing in Northern Virginia -- a major university with a strong computer science curricula. Not only could the University of Maryland provide everything the SPC wanted in the way of academic support and research but it was committed, along with Johns Hopkins University, to work closely with the consortium.
The software engineering program at the University of Maryland is one of the strongest in the country. Both Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland offer first-rate teaching and research programs in computer science and electrical engineering. The presidents of both universities and Hughes were strongly committed to collaborative ventures with the SPC.
But Hughes wanted no part of the flimflam that was proposed to him as a joint venture with Virginia. And why should he? His state was in a position to offer SPC more than Virginia could.
According to Eubanks, Virginia offered to build a facility for the consortium on property owned by the Center for Innovative Technology near Dulles Airport. The CIT, still in the embryonic stage as a "broker" between advanced-technology firms and research universities in the state, would lease the facility to SPC at a below-market rate. In addition, Virginia will provide relocation services, including temporary housing allowances, for SPC executives, Eubanks said.
Montgomery County's incentive package -- to be financed solely by the business community -- included a free 4.6-acre tract in a technology research park. The developer of the park had offered to build to SPC's specifications a 63,000-square-foot building on the site. The county was prepared to arrange below-prime-rate financing for construction and acquisition of equipment. In addition, the SPC would have had free use of office space pending completion of a permanent facility only eight minutes from the University of Maryland's College Park campus.
Moreover, Montgomery County offered to arrange for a 2-point mortgage buydown for three years -- at no cost to the SPC -- for the first 50 executives and associates transferred to the area, temporary housing and relocationg assistance.
In short, the SPC rejected a $20 million package and the opportunity for collaborative ties with two major universities.