If opening one-liners, glowing confidence and good-natured charm are what is needed to quell the problems of Virginia's fledgling Center for Innovative Technology, the agency may have found its savior.
That seemed to be the consensus yesterday among Fairfax County business leaders who heard CIT President Ronald E. Carrier outline his plans for the two-year-old center. Its goal is to boost high-technology industries and economic development in Virginia by calling on the resources of the state's colleges and universities.
Created by then-Gov. Charles S. Robb in 1984 with $30.2 million in funding from the Virginia General Assembly, the center has been a frequent target of critics in industrial and educational circles. They have charged that its mission was fuzzy, its operations secretive and its leaders aloof.
In March, the center's beleaguered president, Robert H. Pry, resigned after 15 months on the job. He was replaced a month later by Carrier, who took a year's leave of absence as president of James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va.
Since his installation as the center's chief, Carrier has undertaken a public relations offensive to eliminate the ill will. His speech yesterday, at a luncheon sponsored by the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, appeared to go a long way toward soothing the concerns in the county's business community.
"They've got quite a salesman there," said Angie Tortora, a contract manager for Omni Construction Inc., a regional building company. "You had some heavy hitters in there who are not easily entertained, and I don't think you heard a spoon drop" during Carrier's address.
"I can't say enough about Dr. Carrier's communication skills," said Chamber of Commerce President Karl Nelson. "All the elements are coming into place. I'm not so sure that existed in the past; I am sure now that they do."
Said another executive of a public relations firm: "What he was doing was relating to his audience, outlining the center in terms relevant to them. The program is a business program."
Carrier's program, which he unveiled Tuesday in Richmond, stresses cooperation between industry and higher education, business applications for scientific research and economic development.
His specific proposals include:Establishing about 15 "Commonwealth Centers" in specialized scientific or technological fields to conduct high-level research catered to the needs of the state's businesses. Establishing university-based "entrepreneurship programs" to lure venture capital funds, encourage spinoff business ventures and improve marketing efforts for university research. Creating a privately endowed Virginia Industrial Productivity Foundation to provide research funds to companies in mature industries such as textiles, furniture and shoemaking that face intense foreign competition.
The "state that is unable to maintain a high level of competition with other states will not be in a position to remain successful in economic growth," Carrier said.
But it was not so much the specifics of his program as his style of presenting it that seemed to appeal to the businessmen.
Speaking in the easy cadence of his native Tennessee, Carrier opened his talk with an invitation to visit him at work: "Come by, it's a very nice office complex."
He then told the audience about being stopped behind a car whose rear bumper sticker read: "Honk twice if you love Jesus."
"So I honked twice," said Carrier, straight-faced, "and she got out and said, 'Damn it, can't you see the light's red?' "
Acknowledging that his goals are ambitious, Carrier declared they "could only be accomplished by good leadership at CIT." Then, pausing for the laughter, added: "All right? I got to do it by April," the expiration of his term as the center's president.
One communications executive, predicting Carrier will be successful, said: "He understands the higher education community, he understands business and he definitely understands the General Assembly . . . . He just knows how to stroke 'em."