Sunday, April 16, 2006

 

Hunley Boom

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The Post and Courier
By John P. McDermott
April 09, 2006


Restoration could launch technology industry
The painstaking restoration of the Civil War submarine H.L. Hunley already has unlocked valuable clues about Charleston's past. Now, leaders from the academic, business and political worlds hope to parlay that effort into a high-tech research center that could reshape the region's future.

The lofty, long-term goal is to make the Lowcountry the nerve center of what has been termed "the restoration economy," a massive but highly fragmented industry that includes urban design, historic preservation, the development of cutting-edge building materials and the rehabilitation of natural habitats.

Storm Cunningham, executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based Revitalization Institute Inc. and author of "The Restoration Economy," estimated the sector generates $1 trillion to $2 trillion a year in economic activity worldwide.

"It's a growth business," he said last week.

Using a laboratory on the former Navy base as its springboard, the Charleston region is positioned to capitalize on that growth by creating the world's first major research and development hub, Cunningham added. "You've got the opportunity to be the Silicon Valley of the restoration economy."

Part hands-on research, part economic development, the ambitious plan is being led by the two-year-old Clemson University Restoration Institute, which is helping finish the Hunley preservation project.

"This is an academic, economic and technological opportunity for us in this community," said state Sen. Glenn McConnell, who also is chairman of the South Carolina Hunley Commission.

If the institute lives up to expectations, the university predicted it could generate as many as 4,700 jobs and infuse $500 million into the local economy over the next 10 to 20 years. The goal is to "build industry around the work we're doing," Clemson President James Barker said at a presentation last Monday in North Charleston.

The first major effort will be the renovation and expansion of the Warren Lasch Conservation Center, site of the Hunley work, with $10.3 million it has requested through the state Research Infrastructure Bond Act.

The rest of the research campus would be developed as needed on about 65 acres the city of North Charleston has agreed to provide Clemson around the existing lab. It likely will be several years at least before any major new construction begins.

"We're trying very hard not to create false expectations," said Janet Schach, the institute's director and dean of Clemson's College of Architecture, Arts and Humanities.

The former Navy base is a natural setting for the restoration program, Schach said. Clemson has maintained a presence at the Hunley lab for years, helping scientists come up with

techniques to restore and preserve the iron submarine. Also, the location places researchers near one of the largest inventories of historic structures in the country. Moreover, the site will allow faculty and students to collaborate with the developer of the nearby Noisette Project, which embraces the same environmentally sensitive building methods the institute plans to immerse itself in.

An early start-up chore, Schach said, will be to attract other Hunley-like marine artifact projects to North Charleston to replace the ongoing submarine work. To do so, the institute plans to promote the anti-corrosion treatments that have been developed there.

"The idea is to take on many more projects and make this an international conservation center," she said.

Beyond that, the Hunley-inspired metallurgical know-how could be put to practical uses, such as extending the life of existing and future bridges, buildings and other structures, she said. Similarly, local research in wood-preservation methods also could find real-world applications, Schach said.

The construction trade is one of Clemson's main targets.

"We only have so many natural resources," Schach said.

With certain building products in short supply, the institute hopes to help fill that gap by developing alternative and better construction materials through its graduate- and post-graduate-level research. One likely strategy is to study and borrow innovations pioneered by other industries, such as aerospace and automotive, Schach said.

"The demand for steel, for example, has grown to the point where projects are delayed and costs are rising. ... Unless we look for some alternatives and new materials and ways to extend the life cycles of current structures, we're not going to be able to meet the need," she said.

The institute already is starting to work with the Medical University of South Carolina on improving the way hospitals and other health care facilities are laid out. For instance, they are looking at designing and equipping patient rooms in ways that promote faster healing, Schach said.

Clemson also sees itself playing a role in the sprawl debate by establishing an "urban ecology" beachhead at its North Charleston campus. Those researchers would look to improve methods of restoring natural habitats, such as creeks and other waterways, and cleaning up polluted urban properties, known as brownfields, so they can be redeveloped.

"Of course, our campus is a brownfields site, so it provides us with a real-life laboratory," Schach said.

She said Clemson's research won't duplicate the established preservation programs offered at the College of Charleston and the American College of the Building Arts. That's by design. "We're working very hard to integrate ... all of those programs to make sure they all complementary."

The institute's plan to leverage its Hunley work reflects the growing interplay between private businesses and universities that conduct marketable research. The effort ties back into the state's "clustering" strategy, which was adopted in 2004 to bolster South Carolina's largest and most viable industries. One of the cornerstones of that plan is greater town-and-gown collaboration.

Steve Dykes, director of economic development for Charleston County, described the restoration economy in the Lowcountry as "a cluster in waiting." He also said Clemson's effort can only help nurture it along.

"On the face of it, this has the promise of becoming a research hub, in that you have all this innovation and collaboration of scientists," Dykes said. "That's probably going to lead to the spin-off of some small companies, much like the type of thing that goes on at the medical university."

The institute also could become a distinct calling card for the Charleston region, he said. "This is the type of thing you can hold up and say, 'This doesn't exist everywhere. This is unique,' " Dykes said.

Clemson has launched a similar initiative in the Upstate with its International Center for Automotive Research. Known as ICAR, the relatively new facility already has attracted major corporate involvement from the likes of BMW Manufacturing Co., IBM Corp., Michelin and Microsoft Corp.

While still years behind ICAR in terms of progress, the restoration institute also will require financial backing and research assistance from the business world. To that end, Schach is now starting to make the rounds with local Clemson supporters, as well as those companies and nonprofit groups that might have an interest in setting up their own labs at the campus.

"These kind of projects take all of these players coming together," she said.


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