ATLANTA -- Even Georgia's first lady worries about cyber attacks.
"I keep telling her that's not going to happen; we don't have enough money for them to fool with," Gov. Nathan Deal quipped before cutting the ribbon on the new $100 million Georgia Cyber Center in Augusta the other day. He fished out his pocketknife when giant ceremonial scissors didn't get the job done, after learning the project is officially the Nathan Deal Campus for Innovation. The naming was a surprise for the outgoing governor, who attended with his wife, Sandra.
The center's mission is critical, state officials say: attract high-tech employers in need of skilled workers and train private, government and military experts to thwart a range of cybersecurity risks.
Last year's Equifax breach exposed information on nearly 148 million people. A recent ransomware attack on the city of Atlanta forced court cases to be processed by paper for months, lost police dashcam video and halted online payments of traffic tickets.
Attacks by cyber criminals are increasingly sophisticated, and the connected segment of daily life continues to expand, from the financial system and electric grid to gas station pumps, home refrigerators and home locks.
"The cyber threat landscape keeps getting worse for all of us," said Georgia Tech's Mustaque Ahamad, who led creation of that university's masters program in cybersecurity more than 15 years ago and is now associate director of the university's Institute for Information Security & Privacy. "I've been scared for a while."
Given the challenge Georgia Tech -- a nationally respected institution for cybersecurity -- faces recruiting faculty, Ahamad predicts a steep climb for the new Augusta facility.
"My colleagues would say it is almost blood sport," Ahamad said. "Building that ecosystem is going to take a while and is going to be challenging."
Recent federal moves help explain why the center is located in Augusta. The National Security Agency has stationed thousands of workers at nearby Fort Gordon. The U.S. Army is moving its Cyber Command to the fort, with nearly 5,000 cybersecurity personnel expected to be fully in place in 2020. The Army expects to invest $2 billion in cyber efforts at Fort Gordon over next decade.
In response, Deal found the money to launch the Georgia Cyber Center there.
"It's going to be a magnet," he predicted.
Not just for students. In addition to Augusta University graduate and undergraduate classes and Augusta Technical College certificate program offerings, the facility will house Georgia Bureau of Investigation, doubling some of the bureau's capabilities in cyber forensics.
The U.S. Army may send personnel for training at the center. According to the governor, the U.S. Department of Defense also is considering locating some operations there. And private cybersecurity businesses may locate there and use the center's facilities to test the security of new developments.
One floor includes carefully guarded space -- its layout was omitted from a building brochure -- designed for classified interactions and technology to block signals from cellphones or other electronic devices.
Augusta has tried boosting its downtown in the past, with limited success. The new stadium for the minor league Augusta GreenJackets wound up just across the Savannah River in South Carolina, for example. The cyber center is located on land once envisioned as the site of the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame.
The state borrowed $6 million in 20-year bonds for the hall in 1996. That paid for the land, a botanical garden, fairway and statues of famous golfers, but there was no money left for the actual building, and it was never erected. Former Gov. Sonny Perdue cut off annual funding for the project, and it closed in 2007.
State and local officials hope the booming need for cyber warriors will make the site a success this time.
"We are seeing a huge change in the ecosystem," said Cal Wray of the local development authority.
The first of two buildings is now open at the Georgia Cyber Center. The second is expected to be completed in December, three years earlier than expected, after officials said they saw unexpectedly heavy demand from industry and available cash from state coffers.
Augusta University president Brooks Keel said the school is going a less traditional route in hiring for cybersecurity staff.
"We are not looking for the typical type of faculty member," he said. "We want to find folks in industry. We want to find people who are straight out of the military."
The hope is that there will continue to be enough demand for the center's future graduates.
"I'm constantly recruiting new talent," said Karl Chambers, chief executive of Diligent eSecurity, a cyber security firm based in Atlanta. "We are looking for people who are at the upper end of brilliance."
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