Sunday, September 21, 2008

Getting "amped"

A gentleman whose opinion I value was happy to see that I started a blog for the Gulf Coast Aerospace Corridor. He liked the review of the region's aerospace news every weekend, but had two suggestions: First, write something every day and, second, "get your voice amped."

The traditional journalist in me balked, not about writing something daily, but the part about getting my voice "amped." I'm from the old school, when we still had two-newspaper towns, typesetters and copy boys. Let's see here, the five "Ws," check. Inverted pyramids, check. Amped? I don't remember that one.

But he got me thinking about it, and he's right.

Here's why: One thing that has frustrated me for a long time is knowing this Gulf Coast region has a huge potential in science and technology, yet for the most part residents don't see it. Granted, people from Pensacola know about the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, and folks in Waveland know about NASA's John C. Stennis Space Center. But what escapes most people is just how much there is across the region, and how it all fits together. Or rather, how it should fit together.

Let me explain something so you'll know, as they say, where I'm coming from.

I lived in Huntsville, Ala., and got my degree from the University of Alabama Huntsville. I saw what an economy based on science and technology can do. That part of Alabama is packed with technology companies offering great jobs and terrific salaries, and it's particularly conducive to startups.

Huntsville is home to NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, the Army's missile program, UAH and the biggest names in the aerospace industry. That's helped give Huntsville one of the highest median incomes in the nation, and it dominates Alabama when it comes to winning small business innovation research and technology transfer money. I also lived near Silicon Valley in California, the epitome of an innovation-based, sci-tech economy.

I moved to the Gulf Coast in 1985 as Pensacola bureau chief for United Press International, and over time I became familiar with the broader region. Beginning in 2002, I started to compile data on the science and technology infrastructure of the contiguous metropolitan areas between Baton Rouge, La., and Fort Walton Beach, Fla.

What I found surprised me. The 300-mile region had well over 150 federal and university organizations doing research and development, test and evaluation or applied technology work in a variety of fields. But they also had some common fields of interest, like marine science and, most notably, aerospace.

I felt like I had walked into a large room with a lot of interesting activities, but they were each focusing on their own cubicle, unaware of what was happening next door, let alone two or three cubicles away. I felt that if they could just knock down the walls and start working together - a horizontal integration - man, what they could accomplish.

I'm not alone in this thinking. I've come across a surprisingly large number of people who have seen the same potential. I've given talks/presentations/lectures about this, and for the most part listeners have been in agreement. But that's usually about as far as it goes before everyone goes back to their cubicle. Oh sure, there have been attempts to get regional things going, but it's been a particularly slow process for a variety of reason, not the least of which is political.

Eventually, I came to the conclusion that the one field that had the best chance of a regional approach was aerospace, because every metro area in the region had some significant things to bring to the table. There has, in fact, been a fair amount of cooperative work done, including cross-state efforts, most notably with the Air Force tanker project.

But that's one project. There had to be something permanent to glue the region together. In 2007, we decided to start working on the glue for the aerospace corridor. As journalists and former journalists, we figured we'd work with what we know – publications, print and electronic. We decided not to approach stakeholders beforehand, but rather to invest the time and effort to do it ourselves as time permitted, run it up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes.

In May 2008, we went live with the Web site, first providing reference material about the corridor - facts and figures, maps and such. Since then we have added a news digest, so we can track the aerospace activities in the region, and we also provide a jobs listing. And we have much more in the works.

That's all well and good, but I believe my friend was right. This blog needs to be "amped," to serve as the voice that can help put all this activity in context, the voice that can try to explain the bigger picture, the voice that believes this region can be more than it's been. This voice needs to point out not only what is, but what can be.

I'll continue every Saturday to recap the past week's Gulf Coat aerospace news for those who do not subscribed to the daily news digest or those who are simply too busy to look at it every day. But during the week I'll give you something different - appropriately amped, of course. And by all means, I welcome your comments.

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