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Published: Thursday, 2/7/2002

Taft begins sweep to tout technology initiative

BY JAMES DREW
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS - When Gov. Bob Taft took his “Third Frontier Project” on the road yesterday, he was happy to meet software engineer Scott Miller.

A day after using his State of the State address to announce a 10-year, $1.6 billion program to help establish high-tech jobs in Ohio, Mr. Taft was touring a Columbus firm when he encountered Mr. Miller near a row of cubicles.

Mr. Miller, 28, told the governor he grew up in Bowling Green and moved to California to get a master's degree in computer science.

But nearly two years ago, he returned to Ohio to take a job at Leadscope, which develops software for pharmaceutical companies.

“Welcome back to Ohio,” the governor said. Mr. Taft later said Mr. Miller is a pioneer of the “Third Frontier” - the high-technology industry which follows the settlement of Ohio and the industrial revolution.

Mr. Miller said he returned to Ohio to be closer to his relatives. He said he hadn't heard the State of the State address and couldn't evaluate how Ohio is faring against other states in the pursuit of high-tech, high-wage jobs.

Mr. Taft said his 10-year program - which hinges on voter approval of a $500 million bond issue next year and legislative approval of millions more in state funds - will result in more patents, licenses, and business start-ups.

This morning, Mr. Taft's two-day, six-city tour takes him to Plastic Technologies, Inc., in Holland.

“It's one of the leading high-tech, `New Economy' companies in the northwest Ohio area,” the governor said.

In January, 2001, Mr. Taft reappointed company president Tom Brady to the state Technology Action Board, which makes investments to stimulate economic development in high-technology areas.

Dr. Brady started Plastic Technologies after leaving his job as technical director of plastics research for Owens-Illinois, Inc.

Founded in 1986, Plastic Technologies has grown to employ 85 in the development of packages and processes for the soft drink industry and others.

The company has a subsidiary in Bowling Green - Phoenix Technologies, which employs 45 turning recycled polyester resin into material for manufacturing.

In 1999, Phoenix Technologies received a $150,000 state grant to install equipment that will allow the company to purify recycled plastic flakes for use in bottle manufacturing.

Betsy Brady, vice president of Plastic Technologies and Dr. Brady's wife, said Mr. Taft's initiative will allow the state to aggressively pursue high-tech jobs.

“When you are doing new technologies, often you do not have guarantees for success. Often, you have enormous expenditures, and if government can support part of that effort to bring technology to market, that is the role,” she said.

The Northwest Ohio Regional Technology Alliance is expected to seek $4 million to $5 million from the state capital budget this year for a “one-stop center” to help entrepreneurs, said Don Jakeway, president of the Toledo area's lead economic development agency. It's unclear where it would be housed, Mr. Jakeway said.

He said he hopes to discuss the proposal today with Mr. Taft.

“We have all of these fragmented groups working on technology initiatives, and we think it would make a lot of sense for a one-stop center to help people with technology ideas,” Mr. Jakeway said.

Mr. Taft's initiative is a “very encouraging development, but it comes at a time when several state-supported universities are raising tuition because of flat state funding,” said Michael Boyle, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the Medical College of Ohio.

He was referring to a proposal released last week to raise annual tuition and fees for new students at Ohio State University by almost 35 percent, beginning this summer. Ohio University is weighing whether to charge freshmen more than upperclassmen, with one proposal calling for rates to go up 19.5 percent.

“If you are successful in developing high-technology, you have got to be careful that you aren't too good,” said Dr. Boyle. “If you can't provide the work force to support it, you develop the economies of other states.

“When you look at very successful technology states - like North Carolina and Massachusetts - they have kept the support for their schools of higher education very solid and kept tuition low,” Dr. Boyle said.

Mr. Jakeway said Ohio is not behind Michigan in the number of high-tech companies and entrepreneurs, but he said Ohio has lagged in using state funds to assist those efforts.

“Michigan has really allocated a lot of money toward their technology initiatives and economic development, and the reason is they don't have a school-funding issue staring them in the face,” Mr. Jakeway said.

Mr. Taft said his administration is trying to persuade state-supported universities to avoid sharp tuition increases.

“The university system didn't get the state funding they hoped and expected or what we think is adequate. We want to do more for the universities as our budget continues to grow,” he said.

“If there is not restraint, then the pressure will be very strong on me and the legislature to reimpose the tuition caps,” the governor said. He referred to the legislature's decision last year to eliminate the 6 percent cap on tuition increases at the main campuses of state-supported four-year colleges and universities.

Meanwhile, presidents of Ohio's 13 state-supported universities are trying to explain why they oppose a tuition cap and why some want to boost tuition higher than usual. Some are answering e-mails personally while others are writing opinion pieces for newspapers.

James Garland, president of Miami University, and Sidney Ribeau, president of Bowling Green State University, on Tuesday asked the state's major newspapers to publish a letter they wrote explaining why a tuition cap would hurt all 13 universities.

The letter, in part, explains that a cap would be devastating because over time the state's universities, all of which have their own missions, would be providing the same type of education.

After receiving phone calls and e-mails from students and parents, Mr. Garland said he and Mr. Ribeau sensed the public is confused and apprehensive about proposed increases.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.



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