Robotics Capital

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In earlier days, this was the nation’s watercress king. Then Huntsville became the Rocket City. On Monday, Gov. Bob Riley announced that the Huntsville-Decatur metropolitan area will soon be “the robotics capital of the world.”

Allowing for hyperbole, Riley appears to be on target. A 53-acre site on U.S. 31 across from Calhoun Community College, which will oversee the project with help from the University of Alabama in Huntsville, will eventually become a $71 million robotics education and training center like none other.

It will train some 450 students a year in state-of-the-art robotics. It will become a NASA and U.S. Army Missile Command research and development center. It will also serve as an R&D facility for companies to build and adapt commercial robots.

And it may do something else good for this region’s economy that goes beyond its stated mission: It may help lure a massive Volkswagen assembly plant that would further boost growth and prosperity.

State officials are understandably cagey about the latter possibility. Legislators from the area, commenting on the robotics center that Calhoun won over competing state community colleges, sounded more than cautiously optimistic but less than certain that this might be a key part of a package that will convince Volkswagen officials to call Huntsville home.

That the Volkswagen plant is in Alabama’s sights is no secret. In the last session of the Legislature, Huntsville’s proposal to increase its Tax Increment Financing capabilities was OK’d. That positions the city to pay for infrastructure that an auto plant would need.

Gov. Riley has hinted he might call another special session of the Legislature to provide more incentives. And word leaked out Monday that state officials that very day were courting VW leaders, no doubt personally passing along the information about the robotics center that could help Volkswagen immensely.

Yet, even if the VW plant goes elsewhere – we’ll know by summer, insiders say – the new facility at Calhoun will be a marvelous entity in its own right for workers in this area and for our economy.

When you talk about jobs of the future, robotics has to be included in the upper tier. Calhoun won’t just be training students for good jobs, but for great jobs.

And when you add the robotics center to other high-tech endeavors like the HudsonAlpha Institute for bioengineering, the increasing scientific work at Redstone Arsenal and Marshall Space Flight Center and the other technological efforts under way here, you’d be hard pressed to find another area of the country doing anything more innovative or potentially lucrative.

The only caveat will be providing the infrastructure to sustain it. We’re talking more and better roads, schools, utilities and amenities. Local voters have been reluctant to make tax investments in some of those needs. That will change as the needs become more apparent and growth demands it.

And growth will surely come to the “robotics capital of the world” because North Alabama is going to be an even more exciting and thriving area, thanks to Riley and all those who have made this happen.

By David Prather

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