PART 1: Young reviews creation of CROET, early days of development

(EDITOR’S NOTE: The article that follows is the latest in a series of profiles on the parks in the Knoxville-Oak Ridge Innovation Valley and their unique roles in accelerating the growth of technology-based enterprises in the region. The focus on the Community Reuse Organization {CROET} of East Tennessee will include four articles that collectively explore its purpose and role in developing three distinctively different parks. This is the first of those CROET articles.)

For many East Tennesseans, the acronym CROET is one with which they are unfamiliar or, if they happen to have heard about the organization, they probably have little knowledge of what it does.

That’s not necessarily the case for the citizens of Oak Ridge, where CROET or its predecessor has worked for nearly two decades to help diversify the region’s economy. The five-letter acronym is shorthand for the Community Reuse Organization of East Tennessee. Its President and Chief Executive Officer is Lawrence Young, an individual who has been part of the economic development fiber of Oak Ridge since the 1980s

In a recent extended interview with teknovation.biz, Young reviewed the factors that led to the creation of CROET and described the organization’s role in helping develop three very distinctive business parks in the Oak Ridge region.

Young says that CROET and similar organizations in other U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) communities came about as a direct result of the end of the Cold War in 1989.

“Congress recognized with the fall of the Berlin Wall that there would be changes in nuclear communities that would result in a dramatic impact on the workforce,” he said.

Oak Ridge was clearly one of those communities that could see substantial changes. The K-25 site – Gaseous Diffusion Plant – was already shutdown, and Y-12 had been ordered to cease manufacturing new nuclear weapons. In fact, in a five-year period ending in 1998, about 5,000 people lost their jobs in the Oak Ridge complex.

Under the Community Reuse Organization (CRO) concept, Young said that Congress used the Defense Authorization Act of 1993 to formally launch a community transition program that included the ability to appropriate “a significant amount of money to assist those communities to redevelop and become less dependent on DOE.” The legislation allowed DOE to award grants to CROs with a focus that ranged from finding ways to utilize the former federal facilities for commercial purposes to retraining the workforce.

He recalls that the local CRO effort was initially part of the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce, later became a standalone affiliate of the Chamber under the name Anderson-Roane Economic Council, and ultimately became an independent entity named CROET in 1995.

“We were very successful in the early years, securing $55 million in federal funding by the end of 2001,” Young said. Those monies were used to make investments that were designed to diversify the local economy and provide non-DOE opportunities for the workforce.

“CROET provided a significant portion of the funding Y-12 needed to establish its ‘Skills Campus’ that was focused on retraining,” he said. Other examples of early investments by CROET included funds to expand the National Transportation Research Center off Pellissippi Parkway and monies to conduct a feasibility study and later design of what is now the Roane Regional Business and Technology Park off I-40. The latter just landed a major Volkswagen distribution center.

Young said investments were also made in projects in other communities in Blount, Campbell, Loudon and Roane Counties.

“We recognized early on that the (project) money was not going to be there forever,” Young noted, adding that “the first inklings of transition occurred in 1996” when Jim Hall was the DOE Manager and Robert Brown was the Assistant Manager.

“They (Hall and Brown) realized that clean-up like that going on a Rocky Flats could not be funded at the K-25 site,” Young continued, adding that the two wanted a better fate for the site that was later called the East Tennessee Technology Park and is now known as the Heritage Center.

Hall and Brown developed a new phrase – “reindustrialization” – and an aggressive new strategy was launched to clean-up the buildings at the K-25 site so that they could be used by private companies.

Fast forward 16 years, and CROET is deeply involved in a feasibility study for a proposed new general aviation airport in Oak Ridge, ironically on the old K-25 site.

“It’s an exciting opportunity for us,” Young says of the work that CROET is doing in conjunction with the Metropolitan Knoxville Airport Authority. “Oak Ridge has wanted an airport for years, but never had the capability to assemble the land easily.”

The airport authority has commissioned a feasibility study with the earliest date for construction to start in 2017 and the facility optimally open in 2020.

“From an economic development perspective, it is another piece of the very important infrastructure needed to make an Oak Ridge differentiator,” Young said.

Helping create the infrastructure to make Oak Ridge standout is a role that CROET has played in a variety of activities.

NEXT IN THE CROET SERIES: Focus on reindustrialization at the old K-25 site.

The Oak Ridger published a 2008 three-part series on CROET, written by Ray Smith. The links to the articles in the series are:

Part 1 – http://www.oakridger.com/columnists/x596325760/Community-Reuse-Organization-of-East-Tennessee

Part 2 – http://www.oakridger.com/news/x1009160641/Community-Reuse-Organization-of-East-Tennessee

Part 3 – http://www.oakridger.com/news/x1435860716/Community-Reuse-Organization-of-East-Tennessee-Part-3

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