George Mason University may be losing its bid for a proposed $30 million state-funded high-technology center, Fairfax County business and community leaders said last week.
The county's estimated 600 high-tech firms had hoped Gov. Charles S. Robb's proposal to create a "center for innovative technology" in Northern Virginia would answer their pleas for academic and research support for high-technology businesses.
At stake in all of this, they insist, is nothing less than the state's economic future.
Without state support, they argue, Virginia will not be able to compete with such bastions of electronic wizardry as California's Silicon Valley and Boston's Rte. 128 for the businesses of the 21st century.
But hopes to locate the center on the George Mason campus may have been jeopardized by these factors:
* A key subcommittee to the Governor's Task Force on Science and Technology is preparing a report that will recommend against the immediate inclusion of graduate technical courses or research facilities in the high-tech center, subcommittee members say.
* Fairfax County development officials proposing a GMU site for the high-tech center recently got a frosty reception from another task force subcommittee, which instructed them to submit proposals for sites elsewhere in the county.
* Donald P. Hearth, one of Robb's top advisers on high technology, said last week he and his colleagues on the science task force are powerless to make specific recommendations for a graduate program at GMU or to arrange for its funding, even though many of them firmly endorse such a program.
Even so, many local officials say they are still cautiously optimistic they will be able to use the controversy over the center to win a new GMU graduate school in information technology and engineering.
"I don't think we're licked yet," said Earle C. Williams, president of McLean's BDM International Corp.
Because final recommendations to Robb are not due for another month, it would be premature to draw any conclusions, said Justin T. Moore, chairman of the board of Virginia Electric and Power Co. and head of the Governor's Task Force on Science and Technology.
Even if Robb supports the recommendations, he said, they will still need to win approval from the state legislature this spring. "No decisions have been made," Moore said.
Still, county officials say they see the handwriting on the wall.
"My reading is that it's not going to go to George Mason at all," grumbled a top Fairfax Republican who asked not to be named. "We're not going to be happy about it because we look on it as something that was promised. George Mason seemed to be the only logical place because that's where the high-tech businesses are."
All over the country, communities are in hot pursuit of high-tech business, offering tax breaks, construction incentives and academic links with universities. And even though Washington's government agencies have provided a powerful magnet to lure such high-tech firms as BDM and Planning Resarch Corp., business and community leaders say, the growth of those companies cannot be sustained much longer without government support.
Without state-funded higher education for technical employes, they say, more firms will follow the lead of former CIA deputy director B.R. Inman, who recently turned his back on Northern Virginia and chose to locate the headquarters of his massive Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corp. in Austin, Tex.
"This area is a goose that's laying golden eggs for the Commonwealth of Virginia," Williams told Virginia legislators last month. "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."
But those goals seem to be running afoul of an extensive lobbying campaign to get the center more closely affiliated with the state's established downstate universities: the University of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University and Virginia Polytechnic Institute.
Unlike fledgling George Mason, each of the downstate schools has extensive high-tech education and research programs as well as a sizable contingent of influential alumni in the General Assembly.
"If you place the center in George Mason's back yard, then you have all the presidents of the other universities having little quiet hissing fits," said one member of the governor's task force. "I just don't think it would work."
Fairfax County leaders say they got the distinct impression that their hopes for George Mason were in trouble when they appeared before the governor's site selection subcommittee earlier this month.
"It did appear that there was an unwillingness to accept the George Mason site," said April L. Young, the executive director of Fairfax County's economic development authority.
At the same time, the governor's advisers seem to be moving farther away from the concept of the center as a teaching and research institution. Robb adviser Hearth, who heads a subcommittee charged with defining the function of the proposed facility, said the group will recommend that the state's $30 million be spent to create a marketing arm for established technical programs at state universities.
The purpose, Hearth said, would be to put businesses together with educators who could help them solve industrial problems, as the University of Alabama is doing with General Motors Corp. by helping to identify cost-saving measures at a Tuscaloosa carburetor plant. Farther down the road might be provisions for limited on-site research and graduate education, he said, but they would be minor components of the plan.
"The needs of Northern Virginia for graduate education should not be met by anything at the center ," said Hearth.
All this has sent Northern Virginia high-tech leaders scurrying in search of a compromise. Their latest plan is to secure a trade-off that would strip the center of all graduate education, while simultaneously mandating the creation of a graduate school in information technology and engineering at GMU with start-up costs of up to $30 million.
"I don't oppose putting the center somewhere else as long as it's understood that Northern Virginia's educational needs will be met some other way," BDM's Williams said.
Hearth and members of his subcommittee say they favor the creation of a graduate program at GMU and they're even willing to recommend it to Robb. The problem, they say, is the subcommittee doesn't have the authority to press such a recommendation, nor can the panel arrange funding for it.
"We are thoroughly, thoroughly, thoroughly in favor of GMU having a graduate program in information technology," said Stanley Freedman, a subcommittee member. "But they can't cut a deal with a powerless group. They should cut a deal through the normal budget process. What they're essentially doing is trying to negotiate with the wrong people."
Some area legislators are skeptical as well, noting Robb's budget cuts for higher education already have brought howls of anger from colleges and universities around the state. Any effort to siphon off yet more higher education money for a new educational facility in Northern Virginia, they say, would meet strong resistance.
"They talk like they've already cut a deal, but I doubt that they have," said Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. of Fairfax, the House minority leader. "I could foresee a lot of downstate opposition to an engineering school at George Mason."
That leaves the ball in the court of area businessmen, who hope their influence, combined with that of their downstate corporate counterparts, will be enough to influence Robb to make a deal. They say Robb, who recently returned from a trip to Japan to woo business leaders, cannot build the state's reputation in international circles if he cannot depend on the support of business in his own state.
"I don't think we have enough clout to make [Robb] do something he doesn't want to do," Williams said. ". . . [but] we could make his life extremely uncomfortable. We can completely discredit him in the eyes of people he doesn't want to be discredited in."