Council Candidates on Technology

Brent Finnegan -- October 27th, 2008

Continuing the Q&A series with City Council candidates:

What is your vision for the technological future of the city? Should Council devote time, resources and money to attract the high tech industry here?

Roger Baker: The City has already invested a great deal of time and money in attracting high tech to the City, I believe it is in the City’s best interest to continue to invest through the City Economic Development Department.
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Dave Wiens: Harrisonburg and Rockingham County are blessed with numerous institutions of higher learning which produce many graduates wanting employment in the high tech industry. Many of these graduates see this area in an attractive light and could see themselves living here. Unfortunately, for these graduates as well as our own sons and daughters who would like to live here but have to move away to accept employment that suits their skills, that is the wish and the problem. So what we have here is a natural resource that we are only now beginning to exploit. Our efforts to attract high tech industry have begun to show results and these efforts must continue.

Of course there is more than the human element that makes this an attractive course to follow. High tech industry is the kind of business that has other benefits. It is clean, requires a minimum of infrastructure development, and often produces quite a number of high wage jobs. The jobs that are spun from this industry are numerous and include everything from highly skilled professionals (physicians, attorneys, etc.) to education professionals to those who work in the service and construction industries. Consequently, the benefits to this type of industry far exceed the actual job opportunities within the industry itself.
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Kai Degner: Yes, I believe the city should encourage investment and incentives for technology-based business in Harrisonburg. The benefits to such an industry are many, including it being a largely clean industry that attracts and retains an educated workforce. As we expect with SRI, such an industry can also spur spin-offs and other new business. Also, as we see with Rosetta Stone, products produced by such an industry have a potential national and global market.

It is important to note reasons why this makes sense particularly in Harrisonburg. We have to think about what gives our city and region a competitive advantage in the industries that we hope to develop. First of all, we have a quality education system, from start to finish, that prepares a local workforce for this industry. JMU’s Computer Science, Media Arts and Design, Integrated Science and Technology (I’m a grad), and other related programs all provide faculty and graduate resources related to such a field. There is a new sustainable engineering program beginning as well, which will have at its core studies in systems analysis.

The city is already moving in this direction, working to promote a technology park on the north end. Indeed, we’re seeing a number of local web design, software development, database development, and other tech businesses already working downtown and elsewhere. I know a number of people working for themselves offering these services on a consulting basis (I used to do that).

Of course, promoting this industry doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Tourism, for example, is another priority.
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Charlie Chenault: We have devoted a tremendous amount of time and money attracting high tech industry here and should continue to do so. These industries are generally clean, well paying, civic minded and will provide employment outlets for our college graduates. SRI is an exquisite example of cooperation between the city, the county, JMU and the Commonwealth to bring one of the most sought after high tech companies in the country to the county immediately adjoining the city. Take time to visit the old Tyco building just off North Main Street to see the progress on a hundreds of million dollars data storage center condominium. Downtown now houses numerous mid-size web development firms. Because of our scarcity of land, we can probably expect the city to accommodate a few more large high tech industries, but the downtown provides the opportunity for numerous mid-size opportunities. Because of the availability of land in the county, we must continue to cooperate with them in this area. Success in the county means success for the city as well in this area.

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Richard Baugh: First, a brief confession. Given my tardiness in getting to this response, I’ve seen some of the other postings on this question. I will say generally that had I not seen them, I probably would not have said anything much different from what the other candidates have said. I would tend to support such efforts. However, in light of the discussion so far, let me make two quick additional points.

One is that this does not strike me as a question likely to get divergence among the candidates, at least at the level of whether or not we are generally supportive. The devil would be in any details.

The other point is the larger one raised in the comment by Justin C. Face it. None of the candidates have this as their area of serious expertise. For anyone who has been following my campaign, they know that my primary area relative to local government is growth and development, and the passion I have developed about trying to get us moving in more progressive, logical and fairer directions. So maybe the best thing I can say on this question is that if I get this job, I want to hear from the Justin C’s of the community to help me get more insight.

I will add one last general point. Since virtually everyone in every community is for attracting high tech industry, this ties into a larger philosophical issue. Should government even be in the business of offering incentives to businesses to locate here? My quick answer is that whether you think this is right or not, the truth is that if we don’t, some other community will. I am certainly not for going overboard. We have some inherent advantages over other communities (transportation access, close but not too close to DC, and being home to two universities), and we will want to keep these factors in mind.
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We have not yet received responses to this question from Tracy Evans, Rodney Eagle, J.M. Snell. We will add their responses as we receive them. A total of eight candidates (including two incumbents) are running for three available seats on City Council.

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11 Responses to “Council Candidates on Technology”

  1. Renee says:

    Many of the JMU grads I’m in contact with through ISAT events want to stay here and start high-tech small businesses. It would be nice for the city to cater to JMU students that want to stay, instead of the vast majority of the ones in technology areas leaving to go to Nothern VA to get a decent-paying job.

    It costs a lot less to live here, and no horrible bumper to bumper traffic on the way to work! I think if the jobs were available, the city would grow, so it’s good to see the candidates wanting to invest in keeping/growing technology here.

  2. Justin C says:

    As an owner of one of those small local tech companies it’s great to see this question asked. That said, no one answered it, and that is disappointing.

    I can only speak to the last 5 or so years because that is all I have experience. In those years however, the city has publicly been a huge supporter of local tech companies. Beyond that there has been very little real progress made.

    I don’t doubt the people who have tried to make progress, I doubt the amount of support they get. Despite everything that has happened I love living and working here. The many people I have met who have helped me, my business partners, and our business have truly been a blessing from God.

    So, what do tech companies want to hear about?

    Downtown wireless. It would be a huge boost to every downtown business, techy or not. The city let World Airwaves try to build their IPv6 technology on our time b/c World Airwaves was paying for it. It was a massive failure. What do we have now for all that planning? Nothing. A city-wide wireless network is exactly what Harrisonburg needs to make it’s case to businesses around the state and country. To get one means the city needs to actively work towards it instead of passively talking about it.

    One Court Square. I can’t keep track of the plans for it. The city has made numerous public promises that weren’t completed. That sends the wrong message to companies about relocating. It says that the city wants to benefit from them, but is not willing to work for them.

    These are just two of the technology related / Harrisonburg issues. There are many more. The candidates know them, and it would be nice to hear some actual plans instead of talk and Vaporware ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vaporware ).

    I love that SRI is here, but they got $12 million to come here and will not show much for yet for awhile. How many Harrisonburg residents got new jobs b/c $12 million of their tax dollars were given to SRI to come here and how many of those “100 jobs” were filled by bringing trained workers here?

    H’Burg small tech businesses don’t get millions of tax dollars. I know a city has a lot of problems and budget requirements and promises are hard to keep, but what are your intentions for technology in this town for the next few years?

  3. Renee says:

    “In those years however, the city has publicly been a huge supporter of local tech companies. Beyond that there has been very little real progress made.” – I have to agree with that. There’s a lot of talk and fanfare, and not much has come out of it yet. I hope it changes with our new City Council.

  4. finnegan says:

    I added Charlie’s response. His email had been acting up and I didn’t get it last night when he sent it.

  5. finnegan says:

    I agree with Renee. Justin’s comment is really insightful.

  6. Brian M says:

    I believe this is the question that I originally asked, however it has really changed direction from what I intended. I am also curious about the Candidates’ ideas about the City Government’s Technology. Where do they see that we could improve the customer service?

    Of course that question may be asked and answered next. I can’t quite remember nor can I find my copy of the final questions.

  7. Joey Groah says:

    Justin hits on a lot of good points. Downtown (via HDR and the City) was very welcoming when we moved in a couple years ago, and always tries to be informed on what and how we’re doing.

    I’d add that we’ve heard some concern from local technology companies on not being involved in bidding on local jobs (POS systems, database construction and maintenance, support), and seeing those jobs go to companies from outside the Harrisonburg area. And the concern hasn’t been “We want to be awarded local jobs!” but more “Why can’t we put in a bid? Why weren’t we solicited for services?” for substantial contracts.

    We’ve always felt pretty included in bidding on anything that might overlap in the services we provide. I’d also add the tech/creative businesses we regularly work with in Harrisonburg are relationships that both sides formed professionally and personally.

    Granted, none of us are pushing $12 million to the other company, but I know that between us and some other local companies we’ve referred a low six-figures worth of business to area companies in the last calendar year. For small tech companies who, as Justin stated, really like being in the area, having local resources who perform at a regional or national level of quality and service has been significant for us.

  8. Brian M says:

    “‘Why can’t we put in a bid? Why weren’t we solicited for services?’ for substantial contracts.”

    If I am correct, and believe myself to be, the City posts all Requests for Proposal and Requests for Bid at the Municipal Building (on the first floor) as required by law. Everyone has an opportunity to read them there daily. Also, the City advertises in the Daily News Record for larger Requests. Whether that is required by law or not is beyond me.

    If you have questions about the City’s Policies or the City’s adherence to State or Federal laws in regards to this subject, then I suggest you contact Pat Hilliard, the City’s Purchasing Agent, at 540-432-7794.

  9. Joey Groah says:

    Great point Brian, I should have been clearer in my post: My “‘Why can’t we put in a bid? Why weren’t we solicited for services?’ for substantial contracts.” complaint from other local companies wasn’t directed at the City of Harrisonburg, but other local companies. In our technology circle I’ve never heard that concern about the City.

  10. Justin C says:

    Brian, I just wanted to follow up on what Joey had to say. No one is accusing the city of not following laws or being unfair to local companies. City council owes nothing to local tech companies.

    My point is that it’s very politically correct for candidates to say they support technology, but we rarely hear about specific ways they will help us. If it’s just a vote of confidence so be it, it truly is appreciated. If a candidate believes in the industry however then with some real government support the tech industry could become a significant part of this community ( assuming it is indeed what the community wants).

    The discussion about bidding opportunities “In our technology circle” started when we realized the website for the downtown technology zone ( http://www.hdtz.org/ ) is being hosted by a company in Maryland even though there are at least 4, if not more, companies IN the tech zone who offer hosting. When I asked around to those companies, no one even know there was a website. It seems that if I were the one working to enhance the visibility of the HDTZ, I would try to support the companies in it instead of their out of state competitors.

    I have no idea who was in charge of that site and do not mean to say that anyone in the city has treated any company downtown unfairly. We just found that fact interesting.

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