By Katie Klingsporn
Associate Editor, Telluride Daily Planet
Published: Saturday, October 8, 2011 6:13 AM CDT
Each year, Telluride draws bluegrass bands and beer brewers, Hollywood filmmakers, wine aficionados and legions of skiers with its summer festivals and ski season.
It also draws a less conspicuous sector of visitors: top scientists.
Marked only by name badges, hundreds of engineers, physicists, climatologists, biochemists, mathematicians and nanoscientists from around the world come to town each summer for conferences, workshops and meetings facilitated by the Telluride Science Research Center.
TSRC started back in 1984 with one workshop and 18 scientists, but it has grown exponentially in recent years. This summer, TSRC facilitated 33 meetings and conferences that drew nearly 1,000 scientists to town.
Prompted by the growth, TSRC Executive Director Nana Naisbitt is looking to expand by building a facility that she hopes puts Telluride on the map as an international science destination.
“Telluride can become synonymous with great science,” she said. “The potential is pretty limitless.”
Naisbitt has hatched a plan to build the Telluride Science Research Center. It is envisioned as a 30,000-square-foot campus-style facility, with an auditorium, labs and classrooms for science conferences, events and research on groundbreaking solar technology. TSRC is eyeing a handful of sites, but it is still in the early stages of planning.
Before it launches fully into the fundraising phase, Naisbitt is hoping to gather community support. This week, she presented the plan to the Telluride Town Council, which embraced it enthusiastically.
“I personally can think of nothing more exciting than Telluride becoming one of the mind capitals of the world,” said council member Thom Carnevale.
Council member Bob Saunders echoed that.
“I think this is a fabulous thing, and if we can make this happen it’ll certainly be something I would be proud of forever,” he said.
It’s a big vision with a big price tag — it’s estimated that $25 million will be needed to build the facility.
But it’s something that has come out of necessity, Naisbitt said.
Right now, TSRC is housed in the Telluride Intermediate School. It’s a great spot, but it’s only available for nine weeks of the summer. Also, the Palm Theatre is too spacious for many of the roughly 100-person conferences that TSRC holds. It’s gotten to the point where TSRC has lost conferences because it doesn’t have the right space.
But the interest is certainly growing. This year, TSRC hosted 972 scientists, who brought some 455 family members to town to stay on average of 5.5 nights each, Naisbitt said. Scientists have come from 68 countries and represented more than 400 institutions and 50 branches of science.
“What we’re seeing is just a huge demand coupled with the limitation of access only to the summer and the limitation for not having an ideal facility for any of this,” Naisbitt said. “It’s a natural progression. There’s a need. There’s a demand. And there’s an opportunity.”
Naisbitt thinks the Telluride Science Research Facility could become a world-class facility on par with Los Alamos or Woods Hole.
The idea has garnered the attention of Solar Fuels Institute, which is dedicated to developing groundbreaking solar energy technology. Solar Fuels is interested in utilizing the facility for research that could yield new and better ways of capturing and using solar energy. The idea would be that Solar Fuels’ administrative headquarters would be at Northwestern University and its international headquarters would be in Telluride.
“Telluride could become known as a place where solutions to pressing environmental problems are found,” she said.
The facility is considering a focus on other disciplines as well, such as green chemistry and evolutionary medicines.
The auditorium could also be used by other local non-profits.
Naisbitt said she is hoping to drum up support in all sectors of the community — even a $5 donation is welcome, she said.
“This really isn’t so much about what TSRC can bring to the community, but it’s more about what can we build together,” she said.
Carnevale said he sees the potential for economic diversification and it’s an incredible opportunity.
“I find it one of the most exciting things I’ve heard in the last 20 years,” he said.
“It’s gotten to a point where it makes all the sense in the world,” said Mayor Stu Fraser.
The council opted to draft a resolution of support for the project.
Regional Sustainability Coordinator Kris Holstrom said it’s a step in the right direction.
“I can’t think of a better thing to move forward,” she said. “We need these kinds of solutions in our lives.”