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Amazon arrival spurs Virginia Tech to build technology campus in Northern Virginia

A rendering of the planned Innovation Campus. (Courtesy Virginia Tech) (Courtesy of Virginia Tech/Virginia Tech)

Virginia Tech plans to build a $1 billion graduate campus within walking distance of Amazon’s new headquarters in Northern Virginia, the keystone in an expansion of technology education in the state designed to lure the company to the region and then to address the long-term impact of Amazon’s decision.

Virginia Tech’s president, Tim Sands, called it a watershed moment for the school, one that will drive economic development in Virginia. It’s also a moment of change for other universities in the commonwealth.

The Virginia Tech Innovation Campus will be the most visible sign of that shift, with a 1 million-square-foot campus in Alexandria expected to educate hundreds of graduate students. But an infusion of money and an anticipated increase in demand for technology education is expected to be felt at schools across Virginia.

The pitch for Amazon’s headquarters included a statewide investment to double the annual number of graduates with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science and related fields, according to a Tuesday announcement by Gov. Ralph Northam (D). That commitment is expected to yield an additional 25,000 to 35,000 graduates over the next two decades.

At George Mason University, an institute will be created to focus on digital innovation, and a new school of computing will be established. More than 5,000 students are enrolled in its computing programs, but with the Amazon decision the school expects the number of students seeking such degrees to triple.

The commonwealth has committed up to $125 million over the next 20 years to expand George Mason’s Arlington campus with an emphasis on research and graduate education in technology, according to university officials. The school will match that figure.

“This is a watershed moment that is going to really rebrand Greater Washington and Virginia as a hub of information technology,” George Mason President Ángel Cabrera said. “This puts us on the map in a really major way.”

James E. Ryan, president of the University of Virginia, said in a statement Tuesday that U-Va. is looking forward to working with Amazon and other universities in Virginia. U-Va. has been expanding its programs in Northern Virginia over the past decade and plans to do even more.

Sands said Virginia Tech had been working on the idea of an innovation campus for about four years, but a little over a year ago, state officials asked the university to lead a higher-education package that would be part of the region’s bid to Amazon. That accelerated the process — especially with a $250 million funding commitment from the commonwealth.

Virginia Tech will match that, with the remaining cost of the campus covered by private donations, industry partnerships and other revenue streams.

The Virginia Tech Innovation Campus will be focused on computer science and software engineering, with specializations in areas including artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and data analytics.

Next year, the first 100 students are expected to begin studying in a temporary space, but within five years, the university envisions 500 students on the campus. Ultimately, Virginia Tech expects to have 750 master’s degree candidates and hundreds of doctoral candidates and postdoctoral fellows enrolled.

Sands said he expects a significant amount of money to be committed toward expanding enrollment in tech fields at many campuses in Virginia.

“We’ll be scaling up significantly to meet the new challenge," he said.

David J. Skorton, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and former president of Cornell University, compared the innovation campus to the Cornell Tech project he helped launch in New York. Cornell Tech "reinvented graduate tech education for the digital age and is further energizing the start-up culture in New York City,” he said. “I’m thrilled Virginia Tech’s leaders have stepped up to create a similar innovation hub.”

Sheila Martin, vice president of economic development and community engagement for the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, said she wasn’t surprised Amazon picked Northern Virginia and New York as the locations for new headquarters, because a company like Amazon is dependent on a high-skills workforce and the research that comes out of universities.

“It’s a validation of the fact that universities are drivers of the growth and innovation in our economy,” she said. If the company were looking for the lowest-cost place to do business, it would have chosen other sites, she said, but it knows the workforce drives competitiveness and productivity and is willing to pay for that.

Ana Mari Cauce, president of the University of Washington in Seattle, knows what it’s like to have a clutch of technology companies in the area, including Boeing, Microsoft and Amazon. They provide internships and job opportunities for students and graduates, help attract top faculty, and contribute to student scholarships, faculty chairs, research labs and new buildings. “We would not be the highly innovative university that we are without robust partnerships with the tech businesses in our area,” she wrote in an email Tuesday, "and they wouldn’t be as successful without their partnerships with us.”

A tech boom can also bring challenges. “It’s also important to acknowledge that the rapid growth of these companies puts a strain on the housing market," Cauce wrote, “driving up rents and housing costs, and in Seattle, this has created real challenges to making affordable housing available, including for the people who teach and work at our public university.”

Robert McCartney contributed to this report.