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March 28, 2022 | Tom Ballard

PART 2: Jim Campbell reflects on the challenges and changes in Oak Ridge during the 1980s and 1990s

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second article in a three-part series chronicling the professional life and observations of Jim Campbell, the long-time President of the East Tennessee Economic Council, who is retiring at the end of this month.)

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

“The federal side has changed a lot over the years, particularly in the past 25,” says Jim Campbell, the retiring President of the East Tennessee Economic Council (ETEC).

The Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA), predecessor to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), was short-lived. Three years after its creation, the “Department of Energy Organization Act of 1977” brought ERDA, Federal Energy Administration, Federal Power Commission, and several other programs under one umbrella named DOE.

Within a few years, what could only be described as a potentially devastating series of cascading events began to happen. The once promising Clinch River Breeder Reactor Project was cancelled in late 1983 after the U.S. Senate refused to provide more funding, the K-25 Gaseous Diffusion Plant was closed, and the magnitude of the cost of the environmental clean-up required at K-25 and the other Oak Ridge facilities was more fully understood.

Further complicating the outlook for the federal facilities in Oak Ridge was their age.

Jim Campbell

“Nothing was built in the 1980s,” Campbell said, noting that the last major facility constructed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) before the Spallation Neutron Source in the mid-2000s was the Holifield Heavy Ion Research Facility that opened in 1981. “Then, the Cold War ends, and Oak Ridge has a very serious problem.”

In 1992, Campbell, who was Editor of The Oak Ridger, declined an opportunity to become Assistant Publisher of a newspaper in Grand Island, NE. “It was viewed as a promotion, but why would I want to leave Oak Ridge with all these interesting things happening?,” he asked himself. Shortly thereafter, The Oak Ridger was sold again in 1994, and Campbell left the newspaper business.

“I was hired in 1995 to do something different with R-AEC,” Campbell said of the organization known as Roane Anderson Economic Council. It was quickly renamed as ETEC in 1992 and doubled down on its focus on the federal missions in Oak Ridge and diversifying the local economy.

For those who are steeped in Tennessee and national political history, the election in 1994 was part of what was described as the Republican Revolution. The Volunteer State elected two new U.S. Senators, a new Governor, and a new Third District Congressman. All were Republicans, but the U.S. President was Bill Clinton, a Democrat.

1995 was also the year that the forerunner to the “Tennessee Valley Corridor National Summit” was first held in Oak Ridge with a focus on the importance of the federal missions in the city and the need for significant modernization of facilities.

Decisions at DOE headquarters further impacted the status quo.

“Until the late 1990s, there was one DOE and one contractor,” Campbell noted, describing that contractor as a “fairly tight organization.” As a result, instead of a single prime contractor, there were multiple ones. Environmental management was the first to be bid separately.

“There was a lot of competition before Bechtel Jacobs won,” he said. Next was DOE’s Office of Science bidding the contract to manage ORNL which was won by a partnership of Battelle and the University of Tennessee (UT). Last was the contract to manage the Y-12 National Security Complex.

Campbell had a front row seat for all of these competitions and the behind the scenes discussions.

“All of these competitions generated a tremendous amount of corporate interest,” he says. They also brought new ideas and energy to help revitalize the federal facilities in ways that would help preserve the missions. UT-Battelle brought the concept of privately-funded buildings to help modernize the aging ORNL, while Bechtel Jacobs emphasized a strong reindustrialization program.

“You got to see a whole new set of opportunities,” Campbell says, adding, “We (ETEC) became an enabler, helping connect people.”

Today, Oak Ridge is in a vastly different place than it was a quarter of a century ago. Buildings like the Uranium Processing Facility are under construction at Y-12; the cleanup at the Heritage Center, the former site of the K-25 Plant, is about complete; and ORNL is DOE’s largest science and energy lab with world-class programs in many areas.

NEXT: What’s on Oak Ridge’s horizon going forward?

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