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'A great outcome for Virginia': Technology research 'critical' to rebuilding state's economy

RICHMOND — The sale of the Northern Virginia complex housing the Center for Innovative Technology caught the eye of JB Holston, the newly named chief executive officer at the Greater Washington Partnership.

Holston, currently dean of the School of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Denver, is a believer in the power of high-tech research to help rebuild an economy stricken by the coronavirus pandemic in a metropolitan super-region stretching from Richmond to Washington and beyond to Baltimore.

“My personal view is it’s probably more critical over the next 18 months than it was prior” to the public health emergency, he said an interview on Friday, the day after the announcement of his appointment to lead the corporate partnership.

So Holston was cheered by the state sale of the CIT complex near Washington Dulles International Airport on Thursday for $47.35 million, which Virginia intends to invest in higher education research and entrepreneurial efforts to turn new technology into commercial gains for the economy.

“That is welcome news,” he said.

No one is happier than Ed Albrigo with the outcome of Virginia’s long effort to shop the iconic building on 26 acres across the Dulles Toll Road from the Innovation Station stop on the Metro Silver Line.

“This is a great outcome for Virginia,” said Albrigo, president and CEO of the CIT, which will become the operating arm of the new Virginia Innovation Partnership Authority on July 1. “The research that can be done with that money is going to be phenomenal.”

The economic shutdown that has accompanied the coronavirus pandemic has proven the “benefit of a wired community,” he said, as well as the fundamental unfairness of not extending broadband telecommunications to communities that need it for work and educational opportunities no matter where they live.

The current crisis, requiring people to work remotely by computer, has made “the inequality of broadband” stark for an economy driven increasingly by jobs that don’t require people to be present in an office to perform them, Albrigo said in an interview on Friday.

Responsibility for working with state and local officials to expand broadband networks to unserved areas will shift from CIT to the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development on July 1 at the same time that the headquarters of the new authority will move officially to Richmond.

The CIT will continue to lease space in the old building — sold to the affiliates of a Chicago capital investment company and a Texas real estate firm — through next March, but it’s already planning to find a new, smaller home in Northern Virginia while also working at its new office in The Gather shared work space on East Broad Street in Richmond.

“How much physical presence do I really need?” Albrigo asked.

He said CIT staff “haven’t missed a beat” in carrying out its programs for gap financing of startup technology companies, issuing grants for commercializing new technologies and issuing contracts for research of unmanned systems and smart city technologies.

The new authority will have a two-year budget of $85.4 million, including money for independently managed state initiatives in cybersecurity, biosciences, advanced manufacturing and logistics. However, Albrigo said it will take a “conservative approach because it could change again” when the General Assembly meets in late summer to revise the budget in the face of predicted revenue shortfalls of $2 billion.

Holston will face an immediate challenge when he takes the helm of the partnership in September, with Northern Virginia and the rest of the Washington region taking a go-slow approach to lifting restrictions on businesses, entertainment and other large gatherings to stop the spread of COVID-19 through a densely populated region that’s been hit hard by the disease.

“Helping to rebuild is what all of us are focused on right now,” he said.

But Holston said rebuilding the economy also will require continued investments in transportation and higher education research, which both were critical in Amazon’s decision to choose Northern Virginia for its East Coast headquarters almost two years ago.

“It’s a good time for making some of these long-term commitments,” he said.


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