High-Tech a Major Part of City's Framework

People charting the future of Newport News want companies such as Dilon Technologies to be a part of it.

Lon Slane, a founder of Dilon, was looking to create a small, high-tech company. He wanted it based in Hampton Roads, having grown attached to the area since moving here in 1991.

Beyond that, he was open to suggestions. With help from the city and state, Slane hooked up with the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News. The place is loaded with ideas waiting for applications.

"Scientists are good at developing a technology," Slane said. "But they're not business people."

People like Slane can take new ideas and turn them into new business opportunities. His company will use technology developed at the lab to manufacture cameras that detect breast cancer. It's 180 degrees from the blue-collar image Newport News has gained over the years.

And that's the point.

As chairman of the city's Economic Development Authority, Bill Grace recognizes that Newport News often sees itself the way others do: a city devoted to building ships.

"We have to get away from that mentality," Grace said.

He doesn't mean get away from building ships. Bite your tongue. Newport News Shipbuilding will continue to anchor Newport News - no one would change that.

But: "We have the ability to have more high-tech, engineering jobs here," Grace said.

The shipyard itself has been doing that for years. In the past year, those efforts have become more high-profile, with its plans for the carrier integration center downtown and the conversion of two other downtown buildings to engineering offices.

"Shipbuilding nowadays in high-tech," Grace said. "And shipbuilding in the future is going to be high-tech."

The Newport News residents and officials who are updating the city's Framework for the Future say that kind of growth is vital. They call it "diversifying the economy."

Al Riutort, manager of comprehensive planning in the city, said the city's Applied Research Center grew out of the that need.

The ARC building, as it's known, is a seven-story glass and brick structure on Jefferson Avenue in the Oyster Point area.

It brings scientists and engineers from around the region under one roof, next door to the Jefferson National Accelerator Facility.

At first, the building was meant to ease crowding at Jefferson Lab. But the purpose has grown.

The 121,000-square-foot ARC building includes 30,000 square feet of laboratories in a three-story wing. It has space for faculty and students from four area universities: Christopher Newport University, the College of William and Mary, Old Dominion University, and Norfolk State University. Another portion is for private companies such as Dilon Technologies, which was the first to move into ARC.

Military cutbacks over the past decade were the writing on the wall for Newport News and the region, according to Riutort.

"We could see it was going to have a great effect on us," Riutort said, "and we had to diversify our economy."

The city built its $18.4 million Applied Research Center as an anchor for a 200-acre technology business park in the Oyster Point area.

The city will build a manufacturing plant in that park and lease it to Dilon Technologies next year, according to Slane.

"We couldn't have asked for better cooperation," Slane said.

His company's offices are in the Applied Research Center while the technology is being tested and the medical cameras designed. Right now, he has six engineers.

Three years from now, Dilon could employee as many as 150 people.

About three-quarter of those will be engineers, with salaries between $60,000 and $70,000. Skilled technicians will make up the balance, with salaries between $25,000 and $35,000.

Karen Jackson is the regional director for the Virginia Center for Innovative Technology, which puts companies such as Slane's in touch with places such as the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility.

It's the kind of thing that can transform a region - one company at a time.

"The goal is that the company will be more profitable, hire more folks," said Jackson. "And that is economic development."

The Newport News Economic Development Authority and its sister, the Industrial Development Authority, use the Framework for the Future as a blueprint, according to Grace.

"We understand and look at what comes out of the framework," Grace said. "We use it as a guide - not a mandate.

"A lot of people want to make it a mandate," he added.

But he says that's not logical, because situations change. "You have people who would like to see the city stay the way it's always been."

Those are the people who don't like to see Newport News spend money on economic development projects, or give land away, or sign its name on moral obligation bonds - which are kind of like cosigning loans.

What's the danger?

"You can't do business like you used to years ago," Grace said. "You can't say, 'Come here and set up, but we won't give you anything.'

"You're going to be left in the dust of the 21st century. We might not like it, but technology is taking over. That's the future."