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Council invests in new high-tech center

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By Roger Snodgrass

The New Mexico Consortium asked the Los Alamos County Council for $1.5 million Tuesday night.It was a sizeable sum for a relatively new organization. The request was for funding in the form of a grant, rather than a loan. But the application package was complete and the string of endorsements and recommendations judged to be solid.“I think this goes a long way toward meeting our economic diversity goals,” said Councilor Michael Wheeler, expressing the consensus of the council, which approved the request by a 4-to-0 vote. Council Chair Jim Hall, and Councilors Jim West and Nona Bowman were absent.The New Mexico Consortium (NMC) sought matching support funds for a proposal to establish a Quantitative Biology Center (QBC). Their proposal, to be funded by the Department of Homeland Security and administered by the National Science Foundation, will require a matching grant that would cover 50-75 percent of the facility costs for such a center.The grant was requested on a contingency basis, since it would not be finalized unless NMC is first awarded $16 million in funds over five years. The proposal indicates that the center would employ 31 people, with salaries ranging from $160,000 for a director to $40,000 apiece for six graduate fellows. Some 120 visitors a year are anticipated and the proposal has budgeted $720,000 per year for short-term housing, which may be invested in constructing and managing a separate facility for this purpose.Larry Icerman, a member of the Loan Advisory Committee, introduced the project and summarized the reasons for the group’s positive recommendations.“If successful, the proposal will bring $16 million to the community that does not come from the Department of Energy,” he said. “It gets double points, perhaps, for diversity.”One of the questions on the councilor’s minds was where such a facility might be located.The proposal calls for 10,000-14,000 square feet of office space and either new construction or purchase of existing office space. Locations in the townsite or the Los Alamos Research Park next to the administrative area of Los Alamos National Laboratory were suggested, as well as the possibility of buying an existing building near the Trinity Site.Katherine Chartrand, the spokeswoman for the proposal, said the exact location had purposely not been specified and that the consortium was open and interested in working with the county on the most suitable location.Wheeler expressed a preference for a “downtown location,” and Councilor Ken Milder took the opportunity to recommend consideration of White Rock.The New Mexico Consortium is owned and managed by three New Mexico Universities – New Mexico State, New Mexico Institute of Technology and the University of New Mexico. Two senior officials of LANL are members of the organization’s board of directors.Councilor Fran Berting asked a few questions to distinguish the promises from the current realities of the funding situation.Chartrand said the consortium has applied for $56 million in grants this year and has $1.7 million so far in active or awarded proposals since starting up about six months ago. She said $40 million of the grants that have been applied for are still in play including the QBC project.LANL has committed to support the QBC project with matching funds from the Lab Directed Research and Development program and through the lab’s Institute of Advanced Studies, according to the proposal.The application describes the work of the QBC in part as focusing on bio-security risks to public health and agricultural security.Before the council’s unanimous approval, Councilor Vice-Chair Robert Gibson said, “This is exactly what we need here.”The funds are available under a state-authorized Local Economic Development Act (LEDA). While larger sums have been loaned, this would be the largest grant the county has made under the program since it was adopted in 2005.