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Virtual reality / December 10, 2009
I remember reading once about the difference between a folly and a mistake: a mistake can result from a decent idea that doesn’t quite pan out, whereas folly arises from notions so ridiculous that no sane person should ever entertain them. So to cut to the chase, is the Modeling and Simulation Center for Collaborative Technologies at Riverstone Technology Park a mistake, a folly, or something else besides?

Those quick to shout “folly” should keep in mind that the future has a way of debunking the current conventional wisdom — the history books haven’t been too hard on that Seward guy who purchased Alaska, after all. Maybe the mod-sim center really will prove to be key to attracting high-tech jobs to Halifax County. However, by one critical standard it’s difficult to argue that the mod-sim center doesn’t already have “folly” scribbled all over it. How is the center going to help Halifax County if Halifax County doesn’t have the money to sustain it over the long term?

As reported on our front page Monday, the Halifax County IDA, with the backing of the Virginia Tobacco Commission, is poised to take over the Modeling and Simulation Center, supplanting Virginia Tech as the project’s controlling authority. There are several different ways one can read this, but it’s hard to escape the conclusion that people looked at what was happening at Riverstone and decided it wasn’t working or going to work. (Granted, this analysis would merely lag a few light years behind public perception, but still). Riverstone represents a vexing challenge inasmuch as Halifax County can’t simply wipe the slate clean, get its $23 million investment back and start all over. So the inclination is to keep pounding the square peg into the round hole and hope something breaks our way. And who knows, it might. You can never be too sure betting on the future. But in the meantime, which breaks first, the pegboard or the pocketbook?

I’ll give the IDA this much: taking ownership of the mod-sim project takes a certain kind of guts. I’ll give the IDA two things, actually: the first thing, plus credit for rethinking the mod-sim center to focus on advanced manufacturing rather than putting so much stock on alternative fuels research and development. Why is one plan any better than the other? Well, enticing manufacturers to come here is a reasonable proposition for creating jobs in Halifax County, even in this global economy (see Danville, Swedwood). IDA director Mike Sexton likes to talks up Halifax County’s chances of landing an auto parts manufacturer or three along the supply chain for the new Rolls-Royce plant in Prince George. Sexton’s ambitions at least sound reasonable. On the other hand, thinking that Halifax County will achieve a breakthrough in the research and development of alternative fuels — okay, no more hemming and hawing, that’s just plain folly. R&D is incredibly valuable in principle but not so much in practice when the people in oversight roles have no clue what they’re doing.

(Frankly, I’ll believe in a clean energy economy when America adopts a cap-and-trade system, a carbon tax or something else (EPA regulation?) that would have the effect of rewriting the rules of the marketplace to discourage the consumption of cheap, carbon fuels. This country has been blathering about the need to achieve energy independence for nearly four decades, with the net result being less than zero. I hope I’m wrong, and Washington enacts a decent cap-and-trade bill that spurs alternatives to gas and coal. Yet even if such a thing happens, I’m pretty sure the science that defines this 21st-century energy economy is going to unfold elsewhere.)

The IDA may have decided to sail into perilous waters as it takes the helm of the mod-sim center, but the local board is but a humble dinghy in comparison to the RMS Titan ... er, Virginia Tobacco Commission, which built this leaky vessel to begin with. The Tobacco Commission obviously agreed with the decision, intentional or not, to nudge Carole Cameron Inge, Virginia Tech’s liaison to Halifax County and the director of the mod-sim center, out of the picture, but how does the Commission respond to Inge’s argument, detailed at some length in Monday’s paper, that the Riverstone center will need substantial and continuous public funding to achieve its stated goals?

The entire idea behind the mod-sim center — and so much else that the Tobacco Commission has thrown its money at — is to create a support infrastructure for knowledge-based companies and industry. But if you’re going to make the center an asset for all potential comers, it’s not enough to plunk down millions to buy a bunch of equipment: you’ve got to plunk down millions to hire the staff to run it. You know ... the highly-trained, well-paid nerds who can program the central scrutinizers, the seven-dimension post rigs and all that other wonderful virtual reality stuff we’ve just dropped millions on. Did the Tobacco Commission not pause to think where the payroll might come from?

Reading the minutes of Tobacco Commission, one gets the impression these questions are mere afterthoughts, little more than mole burrowings on a field of dreams. From the Oct. 28 R&D committee meeting, here’s Campbell County Delegate Kathy Byron, panel vice-chair, speaking during a fairly mundane exchange on how to finance the energy centers:

Some of these are really good questions. We certainly haven’t thought through, because we haven’t been talking about it before, and I know you want some guidance. In some ways, I think when we get that first round some things we’ll have to apply and some of the circumstances to the application, and it’s hard to go out there and grasp how each one of these might work. It may take that to have a good strong policy after we get into this.

The Tobacco Commission is well into building five energy centers in Southside and Southwest, each with initial startup costs of $8 million, as part of a $100 million commitment to energy research. Can you imagine anyone in the private sector, or at a university for that matter, voicing the opinion that it may take some fumbling around before folks can develop a “good strong policy” — i.e., a business plan — to go with all the shiny gear? It’s certainly true that no business ever worked exactly according to plan, and adjustments and course corrections are written into the DNA of any successful enterprise. But this is different: this is the commission finally getting around to pondering the basic question of who will pay the bills once the lights are turned on at their new centers. One hint: it won’t be the state of Virginia, not for some time, anyway.

The Tobacco Commission, breaking precedent, this year allocated $750,000 for operating expenses at each of its new energy centers. (Typically the commission funds only capital costs). The mod-sim center will receive $375,000 for this year’s budget (the rest of the county’s share goes to the R&D Innovation Center at the SVHEC). According to Carole Inge, a sum of this magnitude will cover about six months of operating expenses. No doubt the IDA will try to operate the Riverstone center for less, but whether they get anything back for the money remains to be seen. Meantime, from outside looking in, all people can see is a very expensive, flighty-sounding project that hasn’t borne the least bit of fruit and already is kicking around like a hot potato. Folly or mistake? One answer may be technically worse than the other, but neither is especially pleasing.

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