More than a year after Virginia state officials created what they proudly called the Center for Innovative Technology, many of them are struggling to explain publicly what the $30 million center will do.
The center, known as the CIT, was conceived amid promises from Gov. Charles S. Robb and others that it would bring new jobs and high-tech prestige to Virginia and the Washington suburbs where it is located.
But today, most of the center's programs are cloaked in secrecy, protected by a special state law that makes its directors accountable to the governor -- after the center has used the funds provided by the state.
Although CIT officials say they have approved 100 research projects in conjunction with state universities, they are reluctant to discuss the projects, their costs or the industries involved.
"The only thing I can talk about in substance are those university programs already started and . . . not sparked by the influence of the CIT," said Robert H. Pry, the center's president. "Everything else is in the developmental stages."
A former research executive for a Chicago-based electronics firm, Pry half-jokingly describes his address at a recent daylong seminar on the CIT as "the smoke and mirrors part."
Fairfax County officials who were delighted when Robb decided to locate the center at Dulles International Airport remain somewhat perplexed by the secrecy, but still they are enthusiastic about what they expect the center to do for the county.
"The substance itself is just really not defined as to what it's going to do," said Supervisor Thomas M. Davis III, who is an attorney for a high-tech firm in Reston. "But its symbolic value is significant, even if it doesn't pan out."
Pry concedes that he and state officials have taken an "evangelistic approach" to the center. They talk glowingly about the new jobs it will attract, the ambitious links it will create between university researchers and industry. Most of all, Pry talks about the new image the center will mold for Virginia as a progressive state eager to embrace the high-tech era.
Nonetheless, CIT officials acknowledge they are just beginning to grapple with many of the problems involved in creating the multimillion-dollar center. For example, the National Endowment for the Arts donated $100,000 to a worldwide design competition for the headquarters building, which will be located on a 35-acre site near Dulles Airport on the border of Fairfax and Loudoun counties.
The winning architectural plans, however, now are considered virtually unusable. "They didn't look very human; they made technology look too stark," said Pry.
Once the CIT's headquarters building is complete and programs are under way, it is expected to offer college-level programs; some of these may compete with programs already offered by George Mason University and other colleges with branches in Northern Virginia.
"There's clearly some concern over what role the CIT will play and whether the existence of its programs in the continuing education area will confuse the customer," said Pry.
The center already has been the focus of major rivalries among state universities that competed for the CIT itself as well as its programs.
In the political compromise that resulted in the high-tech center's Northern Virginia location, Robb agreed to designate three universities as the major research arms of the CIT: Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, the University of Virginia in Charlottsville and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg. Political jealousies also influenced Robb's decision not to locate the CIT at what many considered the most logical site, George Mason.
The state laws that allow the CIT to conduct most of its business in privacy without the traditional checks and balances of most government bureaucracies have been criticized by some. "The public ought to know where its money is going," said state Sen. Dudley J. Emick Jr., a Southwestern Virginia Democrat who opposed creation of the center.
Pry countered: "Secrecy may not go over with the taxpayers, but every large industry research operates on that principal. When you sit down with industry, that can't be in a fishbowl."
Although Fairfax and Loudoun counties pushed aggressively to be selected for the CIT site, officials have been frustrated to the point of threatening to move the center because of battles with the owners of the private land that was donated.
Many of the disagreements about the density of development the counties will allow on the landowners' adjacent property have been worked out, but the localities still must solve potentially massive traffic problems when the center and anticipated spinoffs are completed.
CIT officials say those issues merely represent growing pains and quickly point to successes. They boast that the CIT already is drawing new high-tech industry to Northern Virginia, citing a consortium of 15 defense contractors that is considering locating a computer software center in Northern Virginia.
The CIT is only part of a $20 million package of incentives the state and private industry are dangling before the group. The state would build the consortium's $10 million building on the CIT property, and area banks would provide $5 million to give the group's top executives discounted home mortgages.
The CIT has been endorsed enthusiastically by the state's business community, whose leaders see it as a valuable image-builder. When the center hosted a $50-per-person, daylong seminar at Dulles several weeks ago, officials had to turn away hundreds of applications from interested business representatives.
Some business leaders, including Ronald Hobbs of Advanced Technology Inc., are cautious. "One of our concerns is that it may be too 'pie in the sky,' " he said. "We need to make sure that the CIT has a direct link to industry for research and development we need today."
That is the image Pry, who is paid $100,000 a year, is working hard to promote. He says the CIT has two major purposes. The first is to match representatives of industry trying to solve specific problems with university researchers interested in those projects. The second goal, not yet under way, would send university professors into older industries -- such as textile factories and coal mines -- to try to assist the business in improving its efficiency.
Although CIT officials will not discuss many specific projects, they offer glimpses of the work being conducted through the universities. Pry says about $3 million in grants from outside sources has been funneled into CIT programs, but he added that most of those projects began before the CIT was established and that they have been absorbed into the center's programs.
As an example of such a project, researchers at Virginia Tech are attempting to perfect the use of voice-activated computers in a CIT-funded program, Pry says. By refining such a device, researchers hope to provide disabled and handicapped persons with access to a broader range of jobs.
According to Roger Ehrich, director of the CIT-related program at the university, the center is funding about 60 percent of the program, with Philip Morris Corp. picking up 40 percent of the tab. He declined to discuss actual costs.
Other CIT projects include:
A biological experiment at Virginia Commonwealth University in which researchers are trying to find a way to reduce from days to hours the amount of time required to identify some disease-causing microorganisms.
Other VCU researchers are attempting to pinpoint the causes of muscular dystrophy.
A project to improve the methods used to teach deaf persons to speak by using color signals.
Many of the projects deal with robotics -- the use of computer-aided machines to do jobs now performed by humans.
A research team is trying to simplify computer language.