KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Could East Tennessee become the next Silicon Valley or Research Triangle? Three East Tennessee congressmen think so.
"There is no room for pessimism," U.S. Rep. John J. Duncan Jr. of Knoxville said Monday as he was joined by Reps. Zach Wamp of Chattanooga and Bill Jenkins of Rogersville in opening the annual WATTec technology conference.
"I think this region of East Tennessee has the brightest future of any time in my life," Duncan said. "I believe the next 50 years are going to be just unbelievable."
Capitalizing on the moment, the Department of Energy, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Tennessee announced a deal to create a Joint Transportation Research and Development Center.
The center, to be located between Knoxville and Oak Ridge, will work in a variety of areas keyed to the auto industry and related businesses found in Tennessee - from materials science to traffic control.
"Their combined capabilities afford the region and the nation opportunities and capabilities that, otherwise, would not have been possible," said Jim Hall, DOE-Oak Ridge operations manager.
"This East Tennessee technology corridor, that I like to call it, is actually here," Wamp said. "The ingredients are here."
They include not only the Oak Ridge lab and the university system, but the Tennessee Valley Authority and the reindustrialized K-25 site in Oak Ridge.
Also, there are existing manufacturers, such as Eastman Chemical Co. of Kingsport, and innovative newer ones, such as Coors Ceramics in Oak Ridge and electric bus builder Advanced Vehicle Systems in Chattanooga.
"If we capitalize on these assets and work together as a team and work over several years towards advancing our economy, I think we are the next Silicon Valley," Wamp said.
Jenkins came to the conference as the newly elected congressman from the 1st District.
"As the new kid on the block, I came to listen, learn and hopefully increase the participation of Northeast Tennessee," he said.
Much has been accomplished, Jenkins said. Doing more will require "more cooperation between private companies here, the educators at all levels and the government at all levels."
Bill Eads, director of the state's Science and Technology Office, echoed the congressmen's optimism about the region and the state.
He noted that Tennessee's business climate is consistently ranked among the best in the country and that Tennessee ranks second only to California in the number of new inventions making the R&D 100 annual list.
However, he also said Tennessee ranks 39th in investment in new technology and that much of the research produced by the state's universities are exported out of state to find an application.
In addition, he said money probably won't be available this year to establish a Tennessee Development Fund to boost high-tech development in the state.