At a time when it seems like every town in the nation is in a drive to attract high-tech business, Evanston officials are taking the low road to "low tech."
This Chicago suburb is pushing forward with an ambitious plan to transform a 26-acre site smack in the middle of its downtown area into a research park for such basic-industry technology as metallurgy and lubricants.
Officials expect the site to attract $400 million in government and private investment and to create 4,000 jobs in the next few years. They want the site to become a center for work on technologies that will bring a new shine to the midwestern Rust Bowl that surrounds Evanston.
In addition, the project is bringing together, virtually for the first time, Evanston and its No. 1 resident, Northwestern University. City and school officials hope the partnership will produce valuable commercial, technological, financial and social breakthroughs to replace their town/gown enmity of the past.
"This offers the opportunity for both the university and the city to meet their goals," said Judith Aiello, Evanston's assistant city manager. "We're confident that, with the increase in jobs and taxes, it will be a wonderful addition to the city."
Evanston is just north of Chicago on Lake Michigan, and is not a basic Rust Bowl casualty town. It is more a tree-lined suburb. Aside from the university, it has relied more on retailing than manufacturing for its economic base over the years.
But Evanston and Northwestern officials see the planned research park as a way to yoke the city's and the university's strengths to help the entire region.
"It's not just a project for Evanston," Aiello said. "It's a development for the whole state."
The centerpiece of the project is a Department of Energy laboratory, construction of which is to begin this summer, that will study the reduction of energy use by manufacturing plants and the somewhat exotic-sounding science of "tribology" -- how friction between moving parts affects productivity.
Evanston and Northwestern officials also are hoping to attract a major corporate research and development laboratory to the site, as well as a number of smaller corporate R&D facilities. In addition, they will set up an "incubator" project, providing space and know-how to start-up companies formed from Northwestern faculty and students or by the community at large.
Illinois officials have identified Northwestern -- and by extension, the research park -- as the recipient of state funds to further technology transfer between university labs and corporations.
Nobody is going to throw out a scientist who wants to work on biomedical research or some other leading-edge high-tech area in the park. But the concentration is going to be on research more important to the steel and basic-manufacturing industries -- areas in which Northwestern's engineering school has particular expertise.
"Basic industry just seems to be forgotten," Aiello said. "Everybody just seems to have taken on the buzzwords of high-tech."
"There wasn't any place in the country that in a single setting was focusing on the complex needs of the machine-tool industry, the steel industry, the complex needs of manufacturing in total," said William I. Ihlanfeldt, Northwestern's vice president of institutional relations and the acknowledged spearhead of the research park concept.
"I don't think anybody's taken on that entire range of manufacturing systems research -- how do we make it better, cheaper and faster," said Ronald Kysiak, executive director of Evanston Inventure, a nonprofit consortium of representatives of the city, the university and the largest local corporations formed to direct the city's economic development.
Given those parameters, the term "low tech" is certainly a misnomer. The areas the research park will focus on involve automated manufacturing processes, advanced materials research, and sophisticated energy-saving techniques.
"It's not 'low,' it's 'different' tech," Kysiak said.
Originally, Evanston officials saw the 26-acre site as a retail center. The city already owned part of the land; Northwestern owned much of the rest. Evanston officials figured they simply would condemn Northwestern's property and take it over -- a reflection of the kind of antagonism that long had existed between the university and the town.
But as the bad feelings reached a pivotal point two years ago, both sides recognized they had common interests and needs, and a truce was reached. "There was the realization that they're not going anywhere, we're not going anywhere, so we might as well start getting along," Aiello said. The truce first produced the Evanston Inventure concept and then the idea for the research park.
Evanston and Northwestern officials believe the project has the attributes of a successful research park a la North Carolina's famed Research Triangle Park -- the proximity of a first-rate university, good housing nearby, easy access to recreational and cultural points, and good transportation. The area is also fairly convenient to downtown Chicago, although it is a good distance from O'Hare Airport.
"I think we're in the catbird seat . . . ," Ihlanfeldt said. "If the environment supports creativity, then I think we'll attract the right kind of people."
So far, it seems to be working. Although no large corporation has committed to the site, several are said to be looking seriously at it, and representatives from more than 100 companies showed up last month for a presentation on the project. "We're beginning to hustle to market the park to the corporate community, and we're generating a significant amount of interest," Ihlanfeldt said.
If the park is a success, officials of Northwestern and Evanston believe they will benefit from it in their own ways: Northwestern will have access to top-flight corporate research labs for teaching, academic interaction and job placement, while the town will have a possible source of new businesses, through the incubator plan, that it can transplant elsewhere in Evanston -- to say nothing of the tax and job benefits.
"It's clearly going to create an interactive environment for the corporate community and the college faculty," Ihlanfeldt said. "It's going to bring an infusion of intelligence to the city, but also to the university."
"It's the one development that isn't a carbon copy of everything around us," Kysiak said. "It has a chance to bring Evanston a whole new economy."