Monday, September 15, 2008

Supercomputer still set for Cheyenne

Jared Miller reports today in the Casper Star-Tribune that plans for a "major climate-modeling supercomputer in Cheyenne" are back on track.

After months of delay, and speculation that the project might be stuck in federal bureaucratic gridlock, the National Science Foundation acknowledged on Sept. 5 that it had approved the next stage of the work, which will focus on computer design.

"There have been milestones along the way, but this more recent one has everyone smiling a bit more, just because it is a critical step to the rest of the process," said Randy Bruns, chief executive officer for Cheyenne LEADS, the city’s economic development arm.

Wyoming officials have since early 2007 been singing the praises of the supercomputer, which is expected to be one of the largest in the world once complete.

Local and state officials predict it will raise the profile of the University of Wyoming, whose scientists will have access to a portion of the computing capacity. Some also expect the supercomputer to help establish Cheyenne as a hub for technology somewhat like the National Center for Atmospheric Research supercomputer did for Boulder, Colo., and could help diversify the economy in southeastern Wyoming.

The computer is expected to cost $60 million to build, and $530 million over its 20-year lifetime, according to the most recent estimates.The state Legislature contributed $20 million to the project in 2007.

The supercomputer is slated for construction on a 25-acre portion of land owned by Cheyenne LEADS just west of town.

Cheyenne Mayor Jack Spiker said the National Science Foundation announcement is a "huge confidence builder for the community and the entire state." Spiker said he envisions the supercomputer as an economic driver that will attract businesses to Cheyenne, and as a destination for tourists intrigued by one of the largest computers in the world. He noted that the visitor's center attached to a similar supercomputer in Boulder, Colo., reported 50,000 visitors last year.

This is good news for Cheyenne. It will diversify the economy and bring a shot of high-tech to a city known more for government offices, the Air Force base and its refinery and chemical plant that for supercomputing. Many of the jobs brought to the county since I moved here 17 years ago have been in the retail sector, where low-wage part-time work is the rule. The Wal-Mart Distribution Center, close to where the big computer will be built, has brought some decent-paying jobs with it. Unfortunately, many of its workers and managers have elected to live 45 miles south in Fort Collins, Colo., location of major high-tech facilities (H-P, Intel, etc.), a lively downtown, not to mention the best micro-brewery in the Rockies -- New Belgium. Techies love their craft beers.

The brainiacs who will run the new computer may or may not live in the area. It would be great if they did. While support staff can be hired from Cheyenne, our repository of supercomputer engineers is not large -- if it exists at all. Imports from bigger metro areas will expect a lively arts and culture scene. NCAR in Boulder, Colo., has attracted a cluster of high-tech businesses. But Boulder is also the home of the biggest university in the state (but not the best -- CSU gets that honor), another university (if you count hippy-dippy Naropa), and a very lively cultural scene. The Pearl Street Mall draws retro-hippies and Republican businessmen alike. It boasts a high percentage of college grads in a state known for the high education level of its citizenry.

To Cheyenne's credit, we have a very good symphony, an active local theatre company, the "2008 Public Library of the Year" library, Depot Square downtown, an expanding Botanic Gardens and all the activities surrounding July's Cheyenne Frontier Days. Our Greenway is one of the best I've seen anywhere. We have a new wind farm east of town slated to provide some of the city's power, and an up-and-coming reputation for water recycling and reclamation. Let's not forget the mountains, notably the Vedauwoo Rec Area with its great rock climbing and boulder jumping.

It's a great family town. From what I hear, it's not great if you're young and single. I haven't been in that demographic cohort for three decades. But that's what I hear.

I welcome the climate-modeling supercomputer. In the short-term, it won't change much. But we're all in it for the long haul.

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