Originally created 11/21/00

Officials: Reshuffle necessary



ATLANTA - Reshuffling at the state's $23 million program to attract computer-chip designers was needed because, officials say, the initiative has been so successful.

In nearly two years, the state initiative to turn Georgia into a hub for high-tech engineering is ahead of schedule in attracting promises of new jobs and hiring specialized faculty, according to officials with the Yamacraw Design Center. So the departure of the center's director and other staff along with the reassignment of duties last month was described by insiders as necessary to maintain focus.

Yamacraw, the Indian name for the bluff near Savannah where Georgia was founded, has ambitious goals by 2003: train 2,000 microchip designers and create jobs for them, and hire 82 specialized professors to educate them and do the research needed to keep their employers competitive. Companies must promise at least 250 jobs and pony up as much as $250,000 for first shot at the newly trained engineers and exclusive access to the university research for five years without having to pay royalties.

Already, the program is more than half way to each of those targets, at least in terms of company commitments of cash and promised jobs.

No one knows how many of those jobs would have been created anyway, given the strength of the economy and the dizzying pace of growth in the high-tech sector.

"I'd probably give it mixed reviews," said Michael Cummins, chief marketing officer with Equifax. "It's got a lot of positives, but it's got a few things that haven't lived up to expectations.

"There are always jobs being created, but is it cause and effect? Is it sort of a spurious thing that would have happened anyway?" asked Mr. Cummins, who temporarily headed Yamacraw until the first director, Jim Foley, was hired.

Yamacraw officials say the project has magnified what was happening already. And executives with companies involved say it is helping the broadband niche of microchip design gel in Atlanta as other niches have in Silicon Valley and Austin.

About $23 million in Georgia taxpayer money funds Yamacraw this year, and officials want about that much next year. They estimate that company fees will wean the project off of tax money in about three years.

The money goes toward providing seed capital for budding firms and toward hiring the professors who work at eight state universities, mostly in Atlanta. Funds also pay state employees from various agencies who are sort of on loan to the project, recruiting employers and faculty.

October's managerial changes returned the recruiting and faculty hiring tasks to the Department of Industry, Trade and Tourism and to the University System of Georgia. And now the director will report to the Georgia Research Alliance, a private foundation that hires sought-after professors in other disciplines with money from taxpayers and businesses.

But Georgia Research Alliance President Michael Cassidy says government workers won't be getting daily marching orders from a nonofficial foundation. Instead, they'll answer to the heads of the agencies.

Reach Walter C. Jones at (404) 589-8424.