Battle for isotope prize pits Illinois vs. Michigan

December 20, 2004


Gov. Rod Blagojevich held a rally for the state's top politicians, academics, business and labor leaders last week kicking off a bipartisan effort to bring the Department of Energy's $1 billion Rare Isotope Accelerator project to Illinois.

Winning would boost the Illinois economy. The 300-meter accelerator and related infrastructure would bring an estimated 16,000 construction jobs over an eight-year period. Once operational, the facility would be a global locus for science research and technology innovation.

The accelerator could fuel the creation of entrepreneurial startups, bringing a cascade of economic growth. It would assure Illinois stays at the forefront of physics research, a position held for more than 60 years. RIA is the newest device that accelerates particles to near light speed. Experiments enabled by RIA will help create cancer cures and explain the fundamental nature of matter.

Main challenge: MSU

The main obstacle to landing RIA is a determined team from Michigan that wants RIA at Michigan State in East Lansing.

Blagojevich has introduced an All-Star squad that has what it takes to win this contest. Mirroring the holidays, the mood on the 56th floor of the BankOne building was festive. Democrats praised Republicans. Republicans praised Democrats. Labor leaders sat near corporate chieftains, and university presidents and nuclear physicists were seen as superstars.

The meeting created optimism. Maybe, just maybe, we can land one of the biggest technology prizes to come along in years. With Blagojevich's appointment of former U.S. Commerce Secretary Bill Daley and former Gov. Jim Thompson to lead the "RIA for Illinois Task Force," it's possible.

Sen. Dick Durbin recalled the 1960s competition to build Fermi Lab. "The thing that struck me then was the total commitment at every level in the State of Illinois," said Durbin. "It resulted in the largest public works project to date in American history coming to Illinois. It was a total bipartisan effort."

Can we do it again? With Durbin as Senate Democratic whip and Rep. Dennis Hastert as Speaker of the House, Illinois has the political power. Add freshman Sen. Barack Obama and Rep. Judy Biggert, chair of the Energy sub-committee of the House Science committee, and you get a good feeling.

Our state's leaders believe Argonne will be competitive. Still, they worry about a close decision. In a tie-breaker, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham (a former Michigan senator) might lean toward his home state, but that worry evaporated when President Bush nominated Sam Bodman to replace Abraham. "I received a call from Secretary of Energy-designate Bodman," Durbin said. "He was calling from the White House to let me know he was born in Illinois." Now a close decision might go to Illinois.

Blagojevich reaffirmed winning RIA is a top priority. He compared Thompson and Daley to having Mark Prior and Kerry Wood on the mound for Illinois. "I've asked them to pitch for us in Washington," Blagojevich said.

"On the merits, Argonne ought to receive this project," said Thompson. "There's a singular focus on this type of activity at Argonne and the University of Chicago, and over 50 years of experience. We have to make the case in Washington at the Department of Energy, in Congress and at the White House."

He urged the business community to help.

"The one thing we've learned is the importance of science to the future of this nation," said Daley. "This is an opportunity for Illinois to take the lead worldwide."

Daley sees RIA as a potent tool to keep Illinois and the nation competitive.

A skeptic no more

Until the rally, I was skeptical. Did we have our act together? With budget fights in Springfield, debates about airports, and the uncertainty over casinos, I feared a mega federal project like RIA would slip. Not true. The Governor and Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity Director Jack Lavin have their eye on the ball.

The first hint came in mid-November, when Blagojevich gained a bipartisan resolution in the Illinois General Assembly supporting RIA. Since resolutions lack teeth, I remained skeptical. I'm skeptical no more. Our best players are on the field.

Let's hope the spirit of bi-partisanship lasts beyond the holidays and into the spring when RIA's location is decided.

That would be a real Christmas present.

Michael Krauss is a Chicago-based tech writer and consultant.


 ©2004 Marion Consulting Partners