Northern Virginia business leaders told a legislative committee yesterday that a decision to locate a proposed research center in the state's Washington suburbs is crucial to sustaining Virginia's recent high-technology boom.
"This area is a goose that's laying golden eggs for the Commonwealth of Virginia," Earle Williams, president of BDM Corp., told members of the state House Appropriations Committee at a meeting in the ultra-modern offices of Planning Research Corp. in McLean. "If you want to increase the rate at which it lays golden eggs, you've got to take care of the goose--not for the goose's sake, but for your sake."
Williams' testimony was part of the latest round of a high-stakes bidding war that surrounds a proposal by Gov. Charles S. Robb for a $30 million Center for Innovative Technology.
The proposal, expected to be settled at next January's session of the General Assembly, is intended to help Virginia compete with such high-tech bastions as California's Silicon Valley and Boston's Rte 128 corridor by providing academic support to companies that settle here.
Many state-supported schools, including George Mason University, the University of Virginia, Virginia Polytechnic Institute, William & Mary and Virginia Commonwealth University have been vying for the chance to sponsor and staff the planned center. Proposed sites also include locations near Dulles Airport, and two in Prince William County.
Committee members, who toured George Mason's campus yesterday and had earlier attended a dinner as guests of Northern Virginia Community College, declined to discuss the matter publicly. They said they preferred to wait for a formal proposal from Robb later this fall, as well as a report from a state task force on site selection.
"I have been scrupulously uninvolved" in the selection process, said Del. Richard Bagley (D-Hampton), the committee's chairman.
Speaking with emotion, Williams told the legislators that the proposed center must be located on the campus of George Mason University if the state is to keep its high-tech firms from leaving in search of better academic support. A host of other states, including North Carolina, Arizona, and Tennessee, have been competing aggressively for new businesses in recent months.
"In my opinion, the success of the operation depends on its location at the campus of GMU," said Williams, adding that such a location would be convenient to most of the state's high-tech companies.
"I'm not threatening. I'm not going to take our headquarters out of Virginia," said Williams, whose company is one of the area's largest corporate think tanks. "But if I do have another facility to build, I'd have to give serious consideration to locating in the state of Maryland because that's where the action is."
An estimated 600 high-tech firms employing more than 47,000 people now are located in Fairfax County alone, with projections for continued rapid expansion over the next 10 years. Approximately 200 more are located elsewhere in Northern Virginia.
John Autry, vice president of Sperry Corp., told the committee that his company would have difficulty attracting and keeping top people in its 6,000 Virginia jobs if employes were not able to continue their education in technical fields. "If people cannot keep abreast of changes through continuing education, they will go someplace else," he said.
Autry and other industry leaders said they had no objection to the formation of a consortium of universities to run the center, as long as it was located on the GMU campus in Fairfax City. Some legislators said they viewed that idea as a means of winning key downstate support for the location of the center in Northern Virginia.
"I think there's been some turf fighting going on," said Republican Del. Vincent F. Callahan of Fairfax, the House minority leader. "Old line institutions like VPI and UVA and the Medical College of Virginia just don't want to see a regional institution house the center because it would give them added prestige."
Robb has said he favors placing the center in Northern Virginia, but has not endorsed a particular site.