published Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

Chattanooga, Oak Ridge seek economic, tech ties

This is a sketch of the new uranium processing facility planned for the super-secret Y-12 plant in Oak Ridge, Tenn.
This is a sketch of the new uranium processing facility planned for the super-secret Y-12 plant in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

More than 40 Hamilton County businesses are aiming to bid for work on the huge Uranium Processing Facility going up in Oak Ridge, Tenn., as officials said Tuesday they're trying to better link the two areas economically.

"There was a big disconnect," said U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., as a group of nearly four dozen Oak Ridge business people and officials spent the day in Chattanooga looking for closer ties.

The UPF is a $6.5 billion project at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge and one of the biggest-ever construction projects in Tennessee. Officials have said that nearly half of the investment in the weapons plant will go into materials and equipment.

Fleischmann said that in addition to UPF, the federal government plows between $3 billion and $4 billion annually into the Y-12 weapons plant and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the largest research facility for the U.S. Department of Energy.

"We've got a lot to offer each other," Fleischmann told the group, adding that the delegation checked out EPB's nation's fastest Internet, which offers the first citywide gigabit-per-second web connections.

The group also saw Chattanooga's Volkswagen plant and The Company Lab, which helps aspiring entrepreneurs launch and grow their businesses.

Jim Campbell, president of the East Tennessee Economic Council in Oak Ridge, said technology transfer can be challenging, especially when people are investing their own money.

But, he said, there are a lot of opportunities, and he cited the area of advanced manufacturing.

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said that with Chattanooga's gig Internet service, there's a chance to grow more high-tech businesses here. He cited the city's small business incubator that houses 70 companies, 22 of which are considered high tech.

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke said technology is critical to the city's future.

"So much can come from these types of connections," he said.

Henry Perry, president of the Oak Ridge business HME Inc., said it's not all about high technology companies. He said his business, which does property and facilities management, is supported by high-tech firms.

Perry, having grown up in Chattanooga, said he's looking at helping meet the needs of the auto industry here as VW expands.

Last spring, about 50 people from Chattanooga spent a day in Oak Ridge, and Tuesday's delegation was a return visit.

The UPF, which will be the size of what one official called "a Home Depot and a half," will replace an aging facility. The nuclear reprocessing facility is slated to cost the equivalent of about six VW plants and take about a decade to build. It is designed to provide a more modern site for maintaining and dismantling nuclear weapons and help sustain operable nuclear capabilities while blending highly enriched uranium for other uses.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318.

about Mike Pare...

Mike Pare, the deputy Business editor at the Chattanooga Times Free Press, has worked at the paper for 27 years. In addition to editing, Mike also writes Business stories and covers Volkswagen, economic development and manufacturing in Chattanooga and the surrounding area. In the past he also has covered higher education. Mike, a native of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., received a bachelor’s degree in communications from Florida Atlantic University. he worked at the Rome News-Tribune before ...

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