Virginia Gov. Charles S. Robb yesterday proposed spending up to $30 million to create a government-operated research center in Northern Virginia to serve as a bridge between the state's leading universities and its high-technology industries.
The new facility -- to be called the "Center for Innovative Technology" -- is the cornerstone of a series of recommendations by a gubernatorial task force that is aimed at promoting the state as a whole, and Northern Virginia in particular, as a high-tech center that could rival California's "Silicon Valley."
In announcing his proposal, however, Robb anticipated political heat from members of the General Assembly objecting to such a large commitment of state resources by his Democratic administration into the Washington suburbs. One key legislator, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Bagley (D-Hampton) declined to endorse the center yesterday and said that it "will receive the same review" as any other spending proposal before his panel when the legislature meets in January.
"There will be some controversy initially and there will be some that will misunderstand the purpose," the governor said in Richmond yesterday. "If somebody wants to set up a straw man and say, 'I just don't want to spend all that money' . . . that is a very shortsighted view, because in the long run having it located in Northern Virginia draws those research contracts into the state."
A precise location for the new facility has not been identified, but George W. Johnson, president of George Mason University near Fairfax City, immediately called for the center to be placed on his campus. "It seems to be the logical choice," said Johnson. "We will be working very hard to see that it is here."
Robb and other state officials said that, with more than 800 industries employing 62,000 workers, Northern Virginia is one of the country's leaders in the high-tech field, dwarfing North Carolina's established Research Triangle Park.
The Virginia officials said, however, that the state has encountered some reluctance from firms to finance and conduct their research in the state because of the relative inaccessibility of the major universities, such as the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg.
"What they've told us is 'If you expect us to get on the road and drive two hours to go to one of the universities , we'd just as soon get on a plane and fly to MIT,' " said Stewart Gamage, a Robb aide who worked with the Task Force on Science and Technology. "What they've said is, 'Either you take the time and make it easier for us or we'll deal with others.' "
As described by Robb aides, the proposed new center is in part a means of making life easier for the state's new businesses. A rotating group of scientists from the state universities would be brought to the center to conduct research in such fields as robotics, biotechnology, computer science and other high-tech fields in conjunction with private industries. There also will be basic research that would be publicly funded.
The center itself would have an executive director and a small permanent staff of perhaps no more than 10 employes, Gamage said. Robb yesterday appointed a special committee headed by T. Justin Moore Jr., chairman of the Virginia Electric and Power Co., to develop specific proposals for staff and structure and to recommend a precise location. The Moore recommendations are expected to be ready by January.
The center was one of 44 recommendations made yesterday by Robb's "Task Force on Science and Technology'" a blue-ribbon panel of business, government and academic leaders chaired by Moore. Other recommendations, which would cost a total of $50 million, include creating a joint public-private fund for research and development at state universities, establishing part-time graduate programs in high-technology fields, and establishing programs in the state's vocational and community colleges to retrain workers for computer and other high-tech jobs. CAPTION: Picture, GOV. CHARLES S. ROBB . . . $30 million for "innovative technology"