What about the future of LA?

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By Robert Gibson

Los Alamos is an extraordinary community.  Our quality of life is among the very best in the nation.  A major component of that quality is our economic wealth, also at the top.  Why are we so fortunate?  Can future generations enjoy a similar, or better, life here?
Los Alamos is a unique combination of world-renowned science, small town atmosphere, and beautiful natural environment.  That formula is not for everyone, but it works for most of us.  
The root of our good fortune is the concentration of challenging, important, rewarding work at the laboratory.  That work has attracted and retained legions of extraordinary workers and their similarly remarkable spouses and families.  Such people tend to be multi-dimensional, pursuing avocations at a level and intensity similar to those applied to their professional work.  Those attitudes and aptitudes pervade our community; they are in our genes and in our air.  Our standards and expectations for teachers, store clerks, mechanics, and even politicians are correspondingly high.  All these extraordinary people create the stimulating culture that is also key to our high quality of life.
The financial wealth of any community comes from product(s) sold to “the outside world” through primary industries.  Science in the national interest has been our primary industry.  It made us among the wealthiest communities in the country.  The 2004 Fruth study determined that 97% of our primary income comes through the work the lab sells to the federal government.  Most other economic activity in Los Alamos recirculates part of this primary income before it leaks away.
Meaningful work, talented people, and financial means (along with our stunning natural setting) form the true foundation of a high personal and community quality of life.   Good schools and public services, medical services and cultural activities remarkable for our size, shopping and other retail amenities, safety, etc. depend upon that foundation; they are not stand-alone attributes.
All is not perfect.  Commercial amenities and housing options have always been limited.  We’ve done well, anyway.  Today, much of our physical infrastructure, particularly housing, is worn.
Is our past community success formula a sound basis for the future?
Our original wartime “settlers” had a singular purpose; everyone (knowingly or not) came to either build the bomb or support that effort.  Since then, the laboratory’s technical scope has broadened, which is good.  But, while numerous areas of technical excitement remain, the lab’s fundamental culture has evolved over decades from technical to bureaucratic.  Less exciting work requires, attracts, and retains fewer of the “best and brightest.”    
The lab will be here, but its future size and strength are less certain.  Nuclear weapons are not a growth industry.  
Declining technical relevance and productivity mean less work to do and sell.  A supportive and powerful Congressional delegation once largely shielded the lab from the consequences.  It is changing.  Current reductions at LANL will not be the last.  
The need to diversify our economic base is understood.  It is one of four goals of the 2010 Economic Vitality Strategic Plan.  Embryonic activities employ a few dozen.  But in reality, our community development approach has assumed the Lab will forever attract and retain large numbers of talented, capable people and the community’s role is to support them with a pleasant place to live.    
“Diversification” here has typically meant things like retail and tourism.  Such activities are desirable and support community life.  But retail here almost entirely serves local needs.  Isolated, we will never be a retail hub.  Tourism is great “icing on the cake.”  Tourist communities look attractive to tourists, but not nearly so much to residents.  Pay in both industries is near minimum wage.  Neither can begin to replace our technical heritage as an intellectual or economic base.
If we want to be a vanilla Anytown, USA, then pursuing only the common attributes of thousands of other communities will do.     
If we want Los Alamos to continue to be extraordinary, we have to reach beyond that normalcy.  We must attract and grow new primary industry here – comparable to that slowly disappearing from the laboratory – that will continue to attract and retain the people and dollars that make Los Alamos unique and special.
New intellectual and economic base industry could be technical.  It could be other professional, creative, or entrepreneurial fields.  In any case, if we are to continue to be an extraordinary community, our work must be exciting, unique, and world-class.  Everything else depends on it.