TMCNet:  The Montana Standard, Butte, Roberta Stauffer column: Supercomputer project holds promise

[November 23, 2008]

The Montana Standard, Butte, Roberta Stauffer column: Supercomputer project holds promise

(Montana Standard, The (Butte) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Nov. 23--We're understandably skeptical around these parts, what with all the ghosts of failed economic development projects past hanging around, but this Rocky Moun-tain Supercomputing Center seems different.


For starters, the State of Montana has already made a sizable investment in this project, and the governor is squarely behind bringing it to Butte. Recent news reports tell us that -- ready or not -- this computer is coming to the Thornton Building on Dec. 27.

It's the same operation originally slated for Montana Tech, and although the computer won't be physically there, Tech will still be a major partner and beneficiary. And setting up the center as a nonprofit will expand the potential client base beyond academics to the business community. The Thornton Building also had more of the necessary infrastructure already in place to house the system.

RMSC is brand new, so it lacks a proven track record, but key player in getting it off the ground would bring decades of relevant experience and a personal connection to southwest Montana.

Earl Dodd graduated from Twin Bridges High School and Montana Tech. He's now a deep computing strategist for IBM Corp. in Texas and he'll play a lead role, according to Jim Smitham, director of the Butte Local Development Corp. That's reassuring. People with local roots are often behind our successful economic development efforts, such as ASiMI (now REC) and SeaCast.

These supercomputing centers are also common in other parts of the country, and Montana is lacking in this area. Butte is geographically well situated to be the computing center of the state, and with the help of 360 Networks the center would be tied into other regional systems as well.

We at The Standard don't pretend to understand the ins and outs of this highly technical field, but we can't help but think that only good could come from establishing Uptown Butte as the heart of Montana's high-powered computing capabilities.

There's some risk involved, but the potential benefits are great. As MERDI President Jim Kambich said, "This could be a transformative event for the Uptown." Also encouraging is the enthusiasm of local groups such as the National Center for Healthcare Informatics. Officials there are hopeful that in partnership with the RMSC, the Air Force and PEAK, Inc., they could establish a simulation center over the next few years that could employ more than 100 people.

The computer center hopes to start up in January, and it's seeking $380,000 from Butte-Silver Bow to help cover operating costs through June, when monies from the state are expected to kick in. BLDC has already pledged a $200,000 loan toward start-up costs, and the Urban Revitalization Agency has granted $75,000 for infrastructure improvements.

Fortunately, the $380,000 is down nearly half from the $700,000 first requested, but it's still a significant sum. We're not a wealthy county, and it's looking like the only fund available to tap right now is capital improvements, where the needs are great.

Council Chairman Charlie O'Leary said he'd like to see that money be pledged in the form of a loan, possibly structured with provisions for forgiving a portion of it, if significant jobs do come through. He'd also like to see some collateral attached, to reduce the risk to the public. "If this goes belly up, taxpayers are not going to want to be stuck," O'Leary said.

We agree a collateralized loan would be the most fiscally responsible path and hope it can be negotiated. Kambich said some Continental Public Land Trust property on the East Ridge was pledged as collateral for the BLDC loan and there's been some discussion about Butte-Silver Bow and BLDC taking a shared first position on that land.

Smitham said the folks at RMSC are entirely flexible. "It is my understanding they are willing to work with Butte-Silver Bow in any way, shape or form that they can to make this thing work," he said.

The next public discussion of this project takes place at Tuesday night's council meeting at 7:30 p.m. on the third floor of the courthouse. The meeting is a day early this week because of Thanksgiving.

We trust that all 12 commissioners will be present to take part in these important deliberations. When RMSC made its first presentation on Oct. 15, there was barely a quorum, with only seven lawmakers there and five absent.

This is a hugely important issue, and if results from our latest question of the week are any indication, the public is solidly behind local government efforts to bring more jobs to town. With some luck and hard work, this computer delivery could be the best Christmas present we've had in a long time.

To see more of The Montana Standard, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.mtstandard.com.

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