Howard wants to be part of a high-tech haven

Comment

October 12, 1997|By NORRIS WEST

HOWARD COUNTY is 2,800 miles -- and 10 years -- from Silicon Valley, in the view of county Economic Development Authority officials. By the year 2007, the area's high-technology sector will rival northern California's famed region of microprocessing and computer networking companies.

At least that is the aim of the authority's 10-year strategic plan.

The goal makes sense. High technology has become a more visible part of our daily lives -- from the computer terminal and software program I am using to write this column to the user-friendly Internet to micro-chips in cars and home appliances.

Microsoft and Sun Microsystems have become the General Motors and Ford of the late '90s, as technology shapes the economy in new, innovative ways.

The Baltimore-Washington stands to benefit from the spiraling growth of technological development. The area is not in the same league with Silicon Valley, that synergetic area south of San Francisco that is supersaturated with technology giants in Santa Clara, Palo Alto and San Jose.

Nor can it compete with the C-shaped Route 128 corridor in the Boston metropolitan area, another high-tech hotbed.

But the Economic Development Authority notes that the Baltimore-Washington megalopolis has the third highest concentration of biotechnology companies in the country. The region also benefits from the federal agencies and companies with federal research contracts.

Howard can never become Silicon Valley or Route 128 on its own. There isn't enough room in Maryland's second-smallest county in land area to accommodate headquarters for behemoths like Hewlett-Packard, Digital Equipment, Lotus Development or 3Com.

Still, the county is in a perfect position to grab considerable pieces of government and private business flowing into the area.

The county's greatest strength is its location.

The high-tech business is booming with relative silence around the Capital Beltway; its California cousin gets far more recognition. It doesn't seem to matter that the area is home to the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Food and Drug Administration, or that a number of large contractors are in the area.

Montgomery County Economic Development Director David Edgerley touted the area's concentration of scientists and engineers during a Beltsville forum last week and pointed to an obvious weakness -- marketing.

"We need to do a better job of establishing that identity," he said at the forum, "Mapping Out the Future," sponsored by the Baltimore/Washington Corridor Chamber of Commerce. Perhaps a catchy phrase similar to Silicon Valley's might help. Tech Circle? Chip Country? Digital District?

Richard Story, executive director of the Howard County Economic Development Authority, who told the forum of the county's efforts to nurture its technology companies, also sees marketing as a key to the county's future.

Howard's strategic plan calls for an advertising campaign to attract new businesses, particularly high-tech companies.

County firms can benefit from federal contracts or other companies that receive them.

Defense contractor Lockheed Martin tops the list of area firms receiving federal contracts for technical research and development.

(Lockheed also has gone low-tech, gaining state contracts to run social service functions such as child-support collection.)

Columbia's AlliedSignal Technical Services is another large federal contractor that could provide some synergy for the county's budding high-tech sector. That is why it was important for the county to take an extraordinary step to retain the firm. Otherwise, the company may have skipped across borders into technology-rich northern Virginia.

Higher education's role

Colleges and universities have a role to play, too. Silicon Valley and Route 128 also have demonstrated the importance of higher education in developing a potent technology sector. Indeed, Silicon Valley owes its existence to Stanford University. Likewise, the Massachussetts Institute of Technology is responsible for the rise of high-tech in the Boston area.

Are local institutions of higher learning up to the challenge?

The area seems to be in good shape, with the Johns Hopkins University, the University of Maryland, and Washington's George Washington University and Georgetown University.

Mr. Story includes the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in that mix, for good reason.

Freeman A. Hrabowski III, the university's president, has shown a commitment to turning his campus into a stronger research school with its technology center, business incubator and a 41-acre research park under construction.

Howard County stands to benefit from the collage of federal government, contractors and higher education in the megalopolis.

Although this will never become Santa Clara County, it is part of a region that well could.

Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

Pub Date: 10/12/97

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