CHARLOTTESVILLE — State money is about to begin flowing through a new pipeline to deliver degrees in high-tech fields at universities and colleges across Virginia, as the state moves to prove that its investment in Amazon’s planned headquarters in Northern Virginia will wash across the state.
Days after a meeting in Richmond drew eager representatives of higher education institutions from every part of Virginia, state officials were asked bluntly at a forum here how the $2.5 billion project in Arlington County will help Charlottesville and other cities far outside the Capital Beltway.
Virginia’s top economic development official, Stephen Moret, said the answer could be found next door at the University of Virginia, one of the first institutions in line to help boost the development of tech talent in computer science and other fields as part of a $1.1 billion state commitment over the next 20 years.
“I frankly expect that UVA will experience a significant expansion in computer science and perhaps data science,” Moret, president and CEO of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, said at a panel discussion on Friday as part of the annual Tom Tom Festival here. “I would be shocked if UVA is not one of the top institutions.”
It won’t be alone, as shown by representation of higher education institutions at last week’s state meeting, which included emissaries from the Richmond region such as Virginia Commonwealth University, Virginia State University and Richard Bland College, based outside of Petersburg.
“I was impressed by the excitement and enthusiasm among the institutions,” said Peter Blake, director of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, who attended the forum on Friday.
Virginia’s commitment to investing in higher education to develop tech talent was one of the main reasons Amazon chose Crystal City in Arlington County for an East Coast headquarters expected to employ at least 25,000 people, even though the pipeline wasn’t part of the state’s formal economic development agreement with the Seattle-based retail giant.
When Amazon split the original $5 billion project between Northern Virginia and New York City, Virginia didn’t scale back its plans for investing in tech talent. It became even more important with the company’s decision to cancel the half of the project that had been planned for Long Island City in Queens.
No city in the rest of Virginia is likely to benefit more from the project than Blacksburg, where Virginia Tech is engineering a lead role in producing up to 35,000 undergraduate and graduate degrees in high-tech fields over the next 20 years.
Tech plans to expand undergraduate programs in computer science and computer engineering by 2,000 students in Blacksburg in the next five years to begin producing more degrees within the decade, said Julia Ross, dean of the College of Engineering, who participated in a separate panel discussion on the tech talent pipeline here on Friday.
“We certainly will be putting our proposal in around the beginning of May to be in the first round” of state grants, Ross said.
The university also has committed to building a $1 billion Innovation Campus for graduate studies in Alexandria, adjacent to Amazon HQ2 in what is now called the National Landing area along the south bank of the Potomac River.
Northern Virginia “hasn’t been a cool place to be,” for high-tech talent, “but it will become a cool place to be,” Virginia Tech President Tim Sands promised in the 45-minute Tom Tom forum at the Violet Crown theater.
The Innovation Campus will begin offering graduate programs in temporary quarters in fall 2020 but the university plans to expand its existing graduate programs in computer science and computer engineering this year in Falls Church, one of seven sites that Tech operates in Northern Virginia.
“Although the main campus is 4 miles away, we already have a strong presence in that area,” Sands said.
The revised budget the General Assembly approved this year and that is awaiting Gov. Ralph Northam’s signature includes $275 million for the Innovation Campus — $168 million in state bonds and $107 million from Virginia Tech. It also includes $79 million — $69 million of it from the state — for a related project, construction of a Data and Decision Science building at Virginia Tech’s campus in Blacksburg.
George Mason University, based in Fairfax, also is expected to receive about $125 million in state funding that it must match to create the Institute for Digital Innovation in Arlington, as well as facilities there for its new School of Computing. The state budget includes $7.5 million to demolish existing buildings that George Mason owns in Arlington to make way for the new projects.
The pending state capital budget also includes $11 million in bond funds to help institutions make improvements to laboratories or other facilities to carry out their commitments to producing more technology-related degrees under legislation adopted this year to create a long-term fund for the tech talent pipeline.
Lawmakers included $16.6 million in the budget as the first state installment in the fund, which it will use to make grants to colleges and universities that sign agreements with the state that commit them to producing new degrees in computer science and related fields.
The new law requires the institutions to sign memorandums of understanding with the state by Nov. 1, but state officials say they may accelerate the process to July 1 for colleges and universities that are ready to go, with the others to follow in a second wave.
“It was designed to hit the ground running,” said House Appropriations Chairman Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, who helped craft the incentive package for Amazon. “There will be a second round for those who don’t make the first round.”
George Mason is one of the institutions that hopes to be in the first wave of state commitments.
“We’ve been doing a lot of planning around growth in tech talent programs,” said Deborah Crawford, vice president of research at George Mason.”This is a very positive sign, I think, of the state’s commitment to that growth.”
Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne said he assured the institutions that the competition for state grants will be fair, based on scoring much like what Virginia does now for transportation money distributed under Smart Scale.
However, Layne added, “Fair does not always mean equal.”