This month Atlanta lost Rafael Furcal to a $40 million LA Dodger contract, but picked up Jeffrey Skolnick for $7 million.
I'd say we came out ahead. Skolnick is a leader in bioinformatics, the use of computer technology to model biological processes and steer research toward breakthroughs. Furcal is a good shortstop, but that's about it.
I'm being a bit flip here. The point is that cities and states are bound to do better going after academic superstars than sports stadia or fading industries. Yet most deals are aimed at sports stadia or fading industries.
Georgia, for instance, put over $180 million in tax revenue into building Philips Arena, where the elite eat sushi in luxury boxes lining one side, while the rest pile into seats on the other. They are offering all sorts of tax breaks to Ford if it will keep its Hapeville assembly plant open.
But for $5 million in laboratory expenses and $2 million for an endowed chair (some of it privately-funded) Georgia gets Skolnick, along with 19 colleagues and $1.5 million in grant money. Not a bad deal.
Of course, some might say that Skolnick has a lot in common with a star athlete, and the comparison should not be to Furcal but to, say, Terrell Owens. The view from Buffalo, his former home, is basically "good riddance." He was signed with great fanfare in 2000, but according to the Buffalo News and Atlanta Journal-Constitution he's kind of a prick. He wanted to get his wife a job. He chewed through assistants like Owens chews through quarterbacks. He's not a detail guy, and he doesn't scratch backs very well.
So what? Does anyone think this signing won't pay for itself, many times over? To continue the sports analogy, Skolnick was seen in Buffalo as a franchise savior, much like Drew Bledsoe, who signed a big contract with the Buffalo Bills around the same time. (That didn't work out great for Buffalo, either.) Here he's more like Bledsoe with the Dallas Cowboys. Stay within yourself, don't throw the ball away, and the team will carry you forward.
Of course you can't build an industrial base on a few academic superstars. You need a big team, you need facilities, you need entrepreneurial infrastructure, and you need a good farm team. Atlanta has all that but the last -- the schools here aren't the best.
But at least this move is one in the right direction. Furcal may win the Triple Crown next year, and Skolnick may be hit by a MARTA bus. But that's not the way to bet.