Three towns on Route 495 vie for state-of-the-art microelectronics center

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Something for everyone - businessmen, academicians, and politicians. That's the concept behind a planned $40 million microelectronics research and training center.

The high-tech industry will get a retraining facility for its staff and boost the skills of local engineering grads. Nine participating institutions will get state-of-the-art equipment they've only dreamed of affording. And, the state ensures the continued prosperity of the commonwealth.

So far, under the guidance of the state-founded Massachusetts Technology Park Corporation (MTPC), this triad is relatively seamless. But the fabric of the partnership may be stretched a bit in the coming months.

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Out of 27 possible sites for the center, the choice has narrowed to three: Taunton, Marlborough, and Westborough. Each has its backers.

Located near Route 495, the Marlborough and Westborough sites are on the outer rim of a crescent of computer companies wedged between Routes 128 and 495.

Not surprisingly, they are considered the favored sites of the 16 high-tech companies now part of the coalition. Since half of the center's $40 million will come from industry, in donated equipment and money, these firms would prefer to have the investment in their own backyard.

Yet what might be considered the political favorite is about 30 miles south of Boston, in Taunton. The area could use an economic boost, and officials see the center, located on 495, as an attractive lure for industry.

Unemployment in January stood at 13.3 percent in Taunton. ''We're just starting to feel the impact of the Parker Bros. closing and the slowdown in the silver-plating industry,'' Mayor Richard Johnson explains.

Meanwhile, Marlborough and West-borough are enjoying the fruits of high-tech prosperity. The January unemployment level was 4.3 percent in Marlborough and 5. 2 percent in Westborough.

To tout Taunton's interest in the center, Mayor Johnson is planning a press conference next Wednesday ''to show the governor and members of the board how united southeastern Massachusetts is about this center. To let them know we want them.'' Although state representatives, mayors, and officials from surrounding towns will be invited, Johnson denies the gathering is intended to inject political pressure into the selection process.

''We just want them to know that we will do everything to facilitate their construction plans. They will have no problems if the center is located here,'' Mr. Johnson says.

Nonetheless, MTPC board members are feeling some political pressure for the Taunton site.

''No one has approached me, but I'm hearing things from some other firms that have been contacted. That is, if we choose one particular site, everyone will be very happy,'' says Edward Simon, vice-president of research and engineering at Unitrode Corporation and an MTPC board member.

He says the high-tech members of the board are determined their decision will not be made on political grounds. In preparation for the final decision, a trip to each location is planned.

Somewhat removed from the fray are the academic members of the center's board.

Says Karl Weiss at Northeastern University, ''There are two ways of looking at it. You can put the center right where the action is now. Or, you can look ahead five, 10, 20 years from now. It is a reasonable assumption that the high-tech industry will be moving toward the south.'' Mr. Weiss is vice-president of research at Northeastern and a member of the site selection committee.

Site decisions to date, Weiss stresses, have been based on locality and technical qualifications, not on possible benefits to the communities.

Indeed, members of the MTPC's board say too much emphasis has been given the center's employment possibilities. ''At any given time, there is likely to be only 100 to 150 people in the center,'' Weiss says. Most of these will be visiting students and faculty.

Joseph Stach, executive director of MTPC, agrees: ''The center itself is not going to be a large employer.'' But will it draw companies to the area? ''If there is available land, then it may.''

The microelectronics center is one example of a growing movement nationwide for government to take a more active role in economic and educational development. Several universities, including MIT, are forming business partnerships to create this kind of facility. In North Carolina, ground has been broken on a similar center. But, says Mr. Stach, ''Our infrastructure is better. We have some of the finest universities and companies in the industry to draw upon.''

The Massachusetts center will have the latest microchip and circuit-design equipment as well as the capability to produce the tiny wafers. The local industry's dearth of experience in this field fosters a dependence on California- and Japan-produced designs, industry experts say.

The next public meeting of the Burlington-based MTPC is slated for March 16. While some board members anticipate a final site selection will be reached then, Stach doubts it. Instead, he says, more detailed studies of each site will probably be done.

When will the winning town be announced? ''We hope to have it by May,'' Stach says. And it is expected that in the spring of 1986, somewhere along 495, the microelectronics center will open its doors.

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