From a business perspective, the development known as M Square appears a solid real estate investment for its proprietor, the University of Maryland.
Two tenants are planning to open labs and offices in the fledgling 120-acre research park less than a mile from the College Park campus, and officials are confident that more will sign on soon. A private developer has agreed to assume the financial risk of constructing new buildings on the site.
But although the university stands to make a profit on the park, President C.D. Mote Jr. said that's not the point. The goal, he said, is to cement the university's reputation as a leader in science and technology research by cultivating ties to business -- and to establish itself as an economic engine for the state.
"We hope to bring businesses here that stand to gain from proximity to the university," Mote said, "and we want the university to gain from the work of those companies."
In starting a research park, Maryland is coming late to a trend that captivated research universities in the 1990s, many trying to recreate the spirit of academic and entrepreneurial collaboration that fueled growth in North Carolina's Research Triangle and California's Silicon Valley. The Reston-based Association of University Research Parks counts more than 200 members.
Research organizations that move into M Square will be expected to collaborate with the University of Maryland's faculty and graduate students, or with each other, on various projects, officials said.
The first, which could move into a building now under renovation by the end of the year, is the Center for Advanced Study of Languages, a partnership between the university and the National Security Agency that will develop ways to teach and translate less-studied languages such as Urdu and Farsi.
Meanwhile, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is in talks with the university to move some divisions, including a global climate change center and a meteorology lab, to a building that would be constructed on the site.
Though both are government-affiliated agencies, Maryland also hopes to bring private firms to the park, and private developer Manekin Corp. will soon construct the first of several buildings designed to lure such companies. Manekin is also expected to put some housing and retail development on the property over the next several years.
John Porcari, the university's vice president for administrative affairs, said it will be the first time the school has been able to work with private industry at such close proximity -- an arrangement, he said, that should help move the university's expertise in areas such as bioscience and engineering into the marketplace. "Maryland is a leader in those" fields, he said. "We just haven't had as much spinoff from those as we'd like to."
Beginning in the late 1990s, the university began to recruit private firms near campus, notably Fujitsu Laboratories, which opened an advanced computing lab in College Park a few years ago. Yet until recent years, efforts to create a formal research park had stalled.
Part of the problem, university officials say, was a lack of land. Lining up support for the project was also hindered by memories of a research park that the state university system launched in Bowie in the mid-1980s. After attracting only two tenants, the system's fundraising foundation sold its stake in that property to private developers four years ago.
University of Maryland officials say the Bowie park flailed because it lacked a close connection to a campus. "Nobody owned it in a university sense," said Brian Darmody, the university's assistant vice president of research and economic development. "It had more of a real estate than a technology thrust."
In 2002, the university acquired a property near the College Park Metro station -- formerly owned by defense contractor Litton AMECOM -- for $12.5 million. This year, it purchased an adjacent property for $18.7 million.
State and local officials have thrown their support to the project, with the state providing $5 million for infrastructure work on the site, and Prince George's County designating M Square a "priority project" that will get special consideration during zoning and building reviews.
"We see it as a tremendous economic engine for the county," said Al Cornish, the county's deputy chief administrative officer. He said it will be one of the largest business developments in Prince George's.
Despite the recent shakeups in the regional technology community, analysts said, the university will probably find tenants seeking this particular kind of research space in coming years.
"The problem with lab space typically is that it's very expensive to construct, and a start-up doesn't typically have the resources," said David A. DiNardo, a senior vice president at the brokerage firm Grubb & Ellis in Bethesda. "To the extent that they're going to be providing opportunity for incubators and start-ups, that's great."
University officials say the research park will be the largest university-affiliated one in the region. Others, though, are trying to get in on the game. The University of Maryland, Baltimore County has a new park in Catonsville, and the University of Maryland, Baltimore just broke ground on what it calls its BioPark.
Johns Hopkins University is developing a research park in Baltimore and also one near its Montgomery County campus, as is Montgomery College. But Diane Hartley, senior vice president for real estate brokers Spaulding & Slye Colliers, said the different efforts won't necessarily compete.
"It's not a matter of too many or too much," said Hartley, who is working with the Johns Hopkins park. "It's a matter of what's appropriate for each institution to provide."