Skip to comments.150 acres of dreams dashed: Buyer now sought for super-collider site
Posted on 03/15/2003 10:48:51 PM PST by ItsJeff
150 acres of dreams dashed
Buyer now sought for super-collider site
By JIM HENDERSON
Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle
WAXAHACHIE -- The historical footnote will record that it was the most expensive dry hole ever drilled: 18 miles, $2 billion.
It was a cursed quest not for oil or gold or any other tangible resource, but for a brief glimpse -- through a window measured in billionths of a second -- at the creation of the universe.
It touched off a frenzy of land speculation, ignited delusions of quick wealth and long-term prosperity, inspired visions of this placid, North Texas prairie town, best known for its gingerbread homes and ornate courthouse, turned into a hub of international scientific commotion.
That was then. Now, a decade after Congress pulled the plug, what was to have been a superconducting super collider, capable of smashing atoms at near the speed of light, is just a plugged hole, seven drab buildings of assorted sizes and 150 acres of dashed dreams.
Ellis County officials would like to sell it and put the debacle behind them, but while potential buyers drop in occasionally, they have never been able to close the deal.
"It's pretty much a single-use facility," says Ellis County Attorney Joe Grubbs, who handles the legal work of disposing of the property. "One building is 28 feet wide and 600 feet long and it curves. There are not a lot of uses for that building. You couldn't even use it for a shooting range."
The county thought it was close to unloading the white elephant a few weeks ago. A Dallas businessman entered into serious negotiations to acquire the buildings and convert them into an antiterrorism training camp.
Like others before it, that deal fell through. The buildings, which were built to operate what was touted as one of history's grandest scientific experiments, are now near-deserted warehouses. Some county office furniture is stored in one. Mountains of boxes containing plastic foam food containers fill another.
"Everybody gets excited when somebody looks at it," Grubbs says of the property, "and then they are disappointed when a sale isn't made. After a few times, you get a little jaded."
After Congress killed funding for the program in 1993, the Department of Energy ceded nearly 10,000 acres to the state, which sold some of it to private individuals and parceled out some to the county and local school districts.
Rent from companies using the buildings for storage and for television commercial and movie production have helped defray the costs.
"It pays for itself," says County Judge Chad Adams, who took office early this year.
Still, the county is eager to unload the bland, brown buildings that are a dreary monument to what one scholar called a "super boondoggle."
"The SSC promises to do little more than provide permanent employment for hundreds of high-energy particle physicists and transfer wealth to Texas," Kent Jeffreys, director of environmental studies at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., wrote in the spring of 1992.
Enthusiastically advocated by the Reagan administration -- including then-Vice President George Bush -- and embraced by Congress in the early 1980s, the super collider was designed to be a 54-mile elliptical tunnel lined with 11,000 superconducting magnets that would hurl atoms on a collision course for a small-scale replication of the Big Bang.
It would employ nearly 2,500 scientists and technicians and would cost what seemed like an affordable $5 billion. The Energy Department promised that other nations would gladly contribute to the cost for their scientists to have access to the facility.
Twenty-six states engaged in fierce bidding for the colossus, but passions in Washington cooled as the decade came to a close. The scientific community was divided over the value of the collider, and when Texas was chosen for the site, regional resentments surfaced.
"Politics is what killed it," says Keith Roberts, the Ellis County property manager.
Holly Davis, an assistant to the county judge, agrees.
"The government said, `Wait, this is Texas. You've got NASA and the collider. You guys have to choose,' " she says.
More likely what killed it was the debate over the scientific value and the cost.
By the time President George Bush signed the first appropriations bill for the collider in 1989, the estimated cost was approaching $8 billion, with no guarantees it wouldn't go higher.
And, that was a time when the country was facing tough choices. During the 1980s, the national debt soared higher than a space lab, and interest payments alone devoured a quarter of annual federal outlays.
Defending such a massive and controversial project, which promised little practical return, was becoming difficult, especially for Bush, who would soon have to renege on his "read my lips" pledge and go along with a tax increase.
Still, work proceeded in Ellis County. Scientists began moving in. Land was acquired, and work on the tunnel started. Land values shot up, and businesses jockeyed for a bite of the golden egg.
But there were a few skeptics.
"There was a lot of hope," says Susie Witcher, who works in an antique shop in Waxahachie. "But some of us thought it was going to be a fiasco, that we were going to get screwed. It was just too good to be true. I couldn't understand why they would put it here anyway. We're the fire ant capital of the world. Those things can get into a bank vault."
Feelings also were mixed in the community of Boz (population 200), just southwest of Waxahachie, where houses and farms and ranches were being acquired for the project.
The village vanished. Most residents went willingly, having exacted generous prices for their land.
Monnie Bratcher, eightysomething, became a local legend and is still talked about, several years after her death, when conversation turns to the collider.
She had a small farm where she had lived for 80 years. She had 17 cattle, fences, a barn and was close to the cemetery where her parents were buried.
"She wanted to die in her house," says Witcher. "She told them they would have to physically move her off her land, and they did."
Lon Robert Wakefield, who surrendered most of his 140-acre cattle ranch to the Department of Energy, also remembers Bratcher's last stand.
"The sheriff came out and moved her," he says. "She told them they were never going to finish it (the collider) and she was staying right there."
She was the last to go. Less than two years later, the project, 20 percent complete, was halted.
"There was some bitterness about losing their land," Wakefield says. "But most who went through this are dead and gone now."
After he sold his land, Wakefield, now 71, moved into town for a few years. He then returned to the country to settle on six acres, something less than a ranch.
He had a chance to buy back the land he lost, but he declined.
"Everything was gone ... the fences, the barns. I would have had to start all over," he says. "I'm too old for that."
Adams, the county judge, says local residents have recovered from the disappointment of the project's demise but would like to see the facility sold and put to profitable use.
Tentative offers for the property have ranged from $3 million to $8.5 million -- paltry sums in the scheme of what was planned here.
Still, most residents believe, anything would be better than storing plastic foam cups in a $2 billion warehouse.
"It needs to be used for something," Wakefield says.
The SSC was threatening to bring in the kind of money and development that would have turned it from a quaint and charming historic town into a clone of every other strip-mall infested suburb in America. You could already see the tacky McMansions starting to replace the beautiful homes. Fast food joints, etc., were starting to line the street that lead to it, and all the commerce was being sucked to that end of town, resulting in one business after another going bankrupt in the historic town square. The SSC was just killing downtown. Downtown Waxahachie has actually revitalized since the SSC was closed down, and there are now fine restaurants, antique shops, a live music theater, etc. I'm taking a trip down there in April for a great meal and to see Steve Fromholz live, and just enjoy walking around it again.
I'm not bitter about the lack of job prospects. Nobody owes me any sort of job. Lord knows I'm not in it for the money: after more than 11 years of college and 10 years experience at the Ph.D. level, I make less than the starting pay for a local public school teacher. That choice is entirely mine.
What bothers me is that the research is important, and we've irresponsibly ceded it to other countries and centuries. But I'm afraid the national opinion is dominated by people who believe that, "The SSC promises to do little more than provide permanent employment for hundreds of high-energy particle physicists and transfer wealth to Texas", which slams the door on the notion that the research has any value at all.
You're pulling these numbers strictly out of your ass. The costs of the SSC were known up front. If congress had set aside $5 billion in 1986, that's what it would have cost. But of course dollars aren't constant, and when appropriations fall short of what's needed, it stretches the program out. Those two factors alone stretched the cost to $11 billion, which was then determined to be too much.
There was no room for compromise, and they money dwarfed all other spending on sciences at the time.
More sphincter-calculus. The U.S. never spent $1.5 billion in any year on high energy physics, and it's well under a billion even now. The U.S. spends tens of billions a year on research.
I have talked to people in particle phsyics, and even they admit that they really blew it with the SSC.
We blew it big time, and it cost us most of our field. But understand this: the failures were entirely political and not scientific.
Some "science" is just not worth the cost.
That involves a gigantic assumption, i.e. that the universe was "created" and hasn't simply always been there.
Ridiculous. You can't do any sort of science with theory alone. Theory must be complemented by experiment, or it cannot be connected to the real world. It's just pointless navel-gazing.
If something truly requires millions and billions of dollars of research, then that money is far better spent by the private sector,
With some rare exceptions, the private sector does not do basic research, and won't. But all of the applied research done by industry is predicated upon the discoveries made by basic research.
which can do the job most efficienty and focus it on commercial returns.
The purpose of basic research is not commercial returns. The purpose is to gain the understanding that will someday be required for future economic, military and survival-oriented endeavors.
But if it's commercial returns you're after, then you should be perfectly happy with high energy physics. A single spinoff technology--the World Wide Web you're using right now--has generated enough commercial returns to pay for the entire worldwide effort in high energy physics from the beginning of time onward.
That's not an assumption, but an observation. The universe (meaning all the space we can in principle geometrically travel to) is of finite age. We can observe the development of the universe from an extremely primordial state (we can see directly that it was a radically different place) and measure accurately (by several methods) how long ago that was.
I dunno. I feel funny criticizingd him for NOT spending money.
Two words: defense budget.
I should add that many of the dollars now being spend by the U.S. on high energy physics are directed at experiments and laboratories in Europe. They have the equipment, and we don't.
Not a bad guess: $700 million in 2003 dollars is $580 million in 1995 dollars. Here's a cool website that has conversion factors from 1665 onwards.
The only way that could be an observation would be if you were there fifty gazillion years ago and SAW the universe being created. Anything else is in fact a collection of assumptions, along with a few observations of phenomena which can be observed, measured, and INTERPRETED, in accordance WITH the assumptions.
Other than that, I notice that every other sentence on your FR page begins with 'I' or 'My'. That's the basic characteristic of an egomaniac, not somebody interested in discovering the laws of the universe or whose judgement on what was going on fifty gazillion years ago I would view as meaningful.
But light travels at a finite speed, therefore to look outwards in space is to look backwards in time. We can very nearly see all the way back to the very beginning; what stops us just short is that the early universe was dense enough to be opaque to light.
We have hopes that gravitational waves will someday allow us to see even further back.
Other than that, I notice that every other sentence on your FR page begins with 'I' or 'My'.
LOL! It is, after all, MY webpage.
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