Posted on September 13, 2015
It’s time to name the four-lane highway from the Knoxville airport to Oak Ridge the “Oak Ridge Corridor.”
I can think of no better calling card for a job recruiter from the Knoxville area than to walk into an office of any corporation anywhere in the world and say, “I am from the ‘Oak Ridge Corridor.’ Let me tell you what we have in East Tennessee that can help your company make a profit, hire more employees and succeed.”
Along our corridor, there are more than 45,000 people in Anderson, Blount, Knox and Roane counties with graduate or professional degrees. This includes 1,600 scientists and engineers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, more than 500 people at Y-12 with graduate degrees, more than 1,000 Ph.D.s at the University of Tennessee and hundreds of engineers at the Tennessee Valley Authority. This is one of the most formidable concentrations of brainpower anywhere in our country.
For a long time, we have tried to figure out how to take this concentration of brainpower and turn it into jobs in East Tennessee. I tried as governor and as the University of Tennessee president. I watched other people try. We have had some success, but not nearly as much as one would think we should have.
Today, the time is right.
More than ever before, the Oak Ridge-Knoxville area is showing great promise, and we are close to finally solving the mystery that has stymied so many for the last 40 years.
First, Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility has the opportunity to change manufacturing in the way that the discovery of unconventional ways to find oil and gas has changed our energy future. They are 3D printing everything from tooling to robotic arms and from airplane parts to whole cars. Already companies like Local Motors are locating jobs in Oak Ridge to be closer to this research.
Second, the $6.5 billion Uranium Processing Facility is one of the largest construction projects in the country — and is now on time and on budget and is being consistently funded. The scope of this project, which is projected to spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year until it is completed, is attracting companies that may very well choose to locate here and create jobs here.
Third, cleaning up the old Cold War sites at Oak Ridge supports 1,700 jobs today and allows companies to relocate and bring new jobs to Oak Ridge. Once these sites are cleaned up, new companies move in.
And fourth, supercomputing. More than 6,000 scientists from all over the world use the supercomputing facilities at ORNL, which is home to the Titan supercomputer and several other systems. Then in 2017, Oak Ridge will become home to the world’s fastest supercomputer, which will help give the U.S. a competitive edge over other countries in scientific advancement and advanced manufacturing.
As governor, I helped construct the four-lane, interstate-quality road from the Knoxville airport to Oak Ridge, something that had been talked about for many years. We built it 100 percent with state funds. But I had something in mind then more than a road. I thought about how this region was not appreciated for its brainpower.
And that’s why I called it the “Oak Ridge Corridor” — a signature and identity not unlike the Research Triangle in North Carolina or Silicon Valley in California. If you stop and think about it, there is probably no better-known brand name in the world that represents excellence in science, research, technology and supercomputing — the resources that are a magnet for advanced manufacturing companies with good-paying jobs.
Imagine one of our mayors walking into an office anywhere in the world and saying: “I am from Knoxville (or Maryville or Kingston). We are bordered by the Great Smoky Mountains, the county’s most visited national park, and the ‘Oak Ridge Corridor,’ one of the country’s largest concentrations of brainpower in scientific research, advanced technology and supercomputing.”
My guess is anyone sitting in that office anywhere in the world will want to hear what else they would have to say.
Unfortunately, for 30 years, the “Oak Ridge Corridor” has been the best idea that has never happened. Now that the mystery of how to turn brainpower in the Oak Ridge-Knoxville area into jobs for East Tennessee is showing so much promise of being solved, it is time to give that promise a signature name that will let the world know exactly where to put those jobs — and that is along the “Oak Ridge Corridor.”
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander is a Republican representing Tennessee. He also has served as governor, president of the University of Tennessee and U.S. Secretary of Education.