Competition For Major High-Tech Facilities Is Worldwide, ORNL Director Says

Wednesday, August 20, 2008 - by Judy Frank

Not long ago, the director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory said Wednesday, he visited a city that had fallen on hard times a couple of decades ago.

Officials in the city, looking for a way to revitalize their community, decided to try to make it a tourist destination, Dr. Thom Mason told the 900 men and women attending the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce’s annual meeting.

Their strategy? Capitalize on the fact that a river ran through the city by building a large tourist attraction on the river and promoting it heavily.

The effort paid off and, over the years, the city had succeeded in becoming a tourism center. But rather than resting on their laurels, officials then looked for other ways to improve the economy.

What they needed, they decided, was to find ways to convince high tech industries to locate there . . .

“Now it may sound like I’m talking about Chattanooga,” Dr. Mason said, “but this city was not Chattanooga . . . Instead of an aquarium, they built a Guggenheim Museum . . . It was Bilbao, Spain.”

Communities seeking new industries are no longer just competing with their counterparts across the U.S., he said.

“The world truly is flat,” he told chamber members. “People around the world are all trying to connect the same dots we’re trying to connect.”

Dr. Mason heads America’s largest energy research laboratory where studies will help meet the energy challenge by developing a range of technologies, from lighter cars that get 100 mpg to a new generation of nuclear reactors that will allow for the recycling of spent nuclear fuel instead of storing it for thousands of years.

For the U.S. to stay competitive in the global economy, he said, it must create high-paying, high-quality jobs and develop clean, affordable and reliable energy resources. He urged members of the audience to “stay sharp and keep pushing” to meet those challenges.

Dr. Mason was selected to head ORNL after spearheading creation of the Spallation Neutron Source (SNS) in Oak Ridge, a leading research facility that uses neutrons to study the structure and dynamics of various materials.

Because of their lack of charge, neutrons have a superior ability to penetrate materials, according to a 2006 ORNL press release.

“Researchers can determine a material's molecular structure by analyzing the way the neutrons scatter after striking atoms within a target material. SNS will direct the neutrons to a host of state-of-the-art instruments.

”The SNS . . . will operate as a user facility that will enable researchers from the United States and abroad to study the science of materials that forms the basis for new technologies in telecommunications, manufacturing, transportation, information technology, biotechnology and health.”

During Wednesday’s annual meeting, chamber members celebrated Volkswagen’s decision to locate in Hamilton County as well as expansions by major existing businesses and the accomplishments of chamber members, volunteers and staff.

“We have much to celebrate today,” chamber president and CEO Tom Edd Wilson told the Convention Center audience.

“Even as Volkswagen is preparing its site at Enterprise South, Unum has announced a $20-plus million investment, BlueCross BlueShield’s new headquarters has entered the final phase of construction, Memorial is planning a $300 million expansion that will add hundreds of healthcare jobs and Alstom is transforming the western part of our downtown riverfront with a $300 million project that helps re-establish Chattanooga as a hub of the power generation industry. I can’t remember a time when our prospects were as bright.”

During the meeting, outgoing board chair Nick Decosimo, managing partner of Decosimo & Company, turned the gavel over to Tom Griscom, incoming chair and Chattanooga Times-Free Press publisher and executive editor.

Mr. Decosimo pointed out that the chamber enjoys a membership of 1,500 businesses of all sizes and that member retention is at 85 percent, the highest in recent memory. He praised the work of the Chamber’s 11 councils that serve the business interests of their neighborhoods and collectively contributed over $100,000 to local schools and community programs during the past year.

He applauded the chamber’s dedication to existing industry and business recruitment. “That dedication is paying off as companies announce new jobs and investment,” he said. “During the past year the Chamber directly assisted 10 companies (not including Volkswagen) announce $335 million in investment, 704 new jobs, and 300 saved jobs.”

Mr. Griscom praised Chattanooga for developing an economic development strategy with the chamber as the lead agency in job growth efforts. He said he is eager to expand the chamber’s burgeoning roles in public education and the regional economy during his tenure as board chair.

During the meeting, Mr. Wilson recognized Perry Betts of as Chamber Ambassador of the Year and the North Chattanooga Council as the first recipient of the Chamber Council of the Year Award.

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