Some might think the key lies in attracting corporate chain restaurants, retail establishments, and manufacturing enterprises. But, what would make a corporate enterprise want to come to a small town such as Rolla? There are many such towns, not only in Missouri, but all over the world, from Argentina to Zimbabwe to China.
And if a small locality successfully attracts a large corporation, might it not soon find itself at the mercy of such a huge entity? For example, Wal-Mart and other “big box” retail outlets are well-known for driving small local establishments out of business.
Briggs & Stratton came to Rolla to take advantage of numerous incentives the city offered. When these incentives dried up, they moved production overseas.
Perhaps, the secret is local initiative and diversity. First, one must develop local qualities that make a town attractive to the outside world.
Rolla is very fortunate to have one of our nation's very few small, rural, top quality technical universities. This is what distinguishes Rolla.
During my mayoral candidacy two years ago, I strongly advocated building a research park around UMR (now Missouri University of Science & Technology). At the time, I was told a research park in Rolla would be nice, but, at present, impractical. Now, Chancellor John F. Carney III is transforming this impractical dream into a reality.
Missouri S&T’s Innovation Park will build upon ongoing work. GE Aviation’s imminent arrival in Rolla is the result of years of successful research at the university on airplane construction, demonstrating that Rolla is the obvious choice from among the 320 contending locations.
While it is uncertain who will follow GE Aviation to Rolla, my preference would be to see Missouri S&T build on its already considerable successes with alternative forms of energy.
Missouri S&T’s Solar Miner race car has twice won the North American Solar Challenge and once finished fourth in global competition.
The universityalso is hard at work on another form of alternative energy, hydrogen fuel-cell technology. Missouri S&T plans to have a Rolla-FLW shuttle up and running on fuel-cell technology this summer.
These two forms of alternative energy complement each other.
Solar energy fights pollution and global warming on two fronts. Every photon that is turned into electric power is a photon that does not warm the Earth's surface. And every kilowatt of electric power produced by solar energy is a kilowatt that does not have to be produced by polluting sources such as coal or oil.
Burning hydrogen to produce automotive power creates only non-polluting water vapor as a by-product. But, energy is needed to produce hydrogen gas, and it typically comes from a polluting source. Now, if Missouri S&T can produce hydrogen from solar energy and then use the hydrogen to power cars and other vehicles, it will have solved a tremendous piece of our energy dilemma.
This is what publicly supported universities should be doing: Finding beneficial solutions to society’s problems; and that will benefit all of us.
I see little in the way of drawbacks.
Keith Strassner, director of Technology, Commercialization and Economic Development at S&T assures me that all commercial enterprises at Innovation Park will pay their fair share of taxes and will not “inherit” S&T’s tax-exempt status.
Many of the jobs produced through Innovation Park will be high-paying technical jobs, although a significant number will be non-technical support positions. The average annual salary at Innovation Park is projected to be almost $42,000; and when the park is full, in perhaps 12 years, this might translate into over 12,000 new jobs.
A rumor that Strassner seeks to dispel is that the S&T Golf Course is, like Buehler Park, dedicated land and cannot legally be put to an alternative use. Strassner claims there are no known legal impediments to building Innovation Park on the Golf Course.
To this, I would add that there is no comparison between a public park which has historical and recreation value for all, and a university golf course which is used only by a small group of golf enthusiasts.
Similarly, there is no comparison between a research and technological park that can provide thousands of high-paying jobs, and a few restaurants that would pay little more than minimum wage in Rolla's already saturated restaurant market.
Let's all welcome Innovation Park to Rolla and work for its success.
(Tom Sager, the Misfit Mathematician, is a retired professor at Missouri University of Science and Technology (formerly UMR). His column appears weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at his Web site, www.tomsager.org. The opinions expressed in his column are his and his alone, and do not reflect the views of the Rolla Daily News, GateHouse Media, or their staff, employees or affiliates.)