TSRC sent the Telluride Mountain Village Owners Association a proposal requesting to build its research campus on TMVOA-owned land next to the Mountain Village Town Hall.
TMVOA president and CEO Greg Pope was tight-lipped when asked to comment on the review process, saying only that he and his staff will be conducting a thorough review of TSRC’s proposal, the nonprofit’s financial health and the envisioned research campus it hopes to build in Mountain Village. Pope will present TMVOA’s decision at its next board meeting on Nov. 13.
Since 1984, TSRC has offered workshops and conferences that attract thousands of multi-disciplinary scientists from around the world to discuss molecular science - an increasingly important field that may unlock the answers to society’s most pressing needs by unlocking new energy sources, developing life-saving drugs, growing healthier food, embarking upon environmental restoration and engineering green materials.
TSRC currently holds its meetings in locations throughout Telluride, including classrooms in the Telluride schools. But TSRC is quickly outgrowing these venues and says it needs to construct its own purpose-built structure in which to host events.
The nonprofit originally sought a private-public partnership with the Town of Telluride, proposing the lease of a town-owned lot on East Pacific Avenue for $10 a month over a 100-year period. With that deal in place, TSRC would then fundraise to build its estimated $25 million campus.
But negotiations between the town and TSRC hit a sticking point in August when the town demanded that it should own the structure TSRC would build on the town-owned parcel.
TSRC Executive Director Nana Naisbitt said the town’s ownership of the structure would hinder the nonprofit’s fundraising capabilities. “This is a non-starter,” said Naisbitt in August, referring to the difficulties of raising private monies to construct and maintain a municipal-owned structure.
In September, council and TSRC met again to discuss an outright sale of the East Pacific Avenue parcel, valued at an estimated $4 million, to TSRC. While outright sale of the land would sidestep some of the legal headaches caused by the complicated leasing negotiations, Naisbitt said that raising an extra $4 million to purchase the land would add to the organization’s already-hefty fundraising goals, further slimming the prospects of building the campus in Telluride.
Frustrated by the stalled negotiations, the TSRC board of directors instructed Naisbitt to look elsewhere to build the campus.
In August, after the town introduced the idea of town ownership of TSRC’s structure, Naisbitt was invited to tour the TMVOA-owned lots near the Mountain Village fire station and Town Hall by Chris Hawkins, Mountain Village Director of Community Development. Naisbitt said the site provides ample space and easy access to the gondola that connects the neighboring towns.
“One of the reasons I like the two acre site in Mountain Village is that we could build a campus,” said Naisbitt.
“The campus would feature walking paths, benches, grass - it would look more like a college campus than the single-building structure we might build in Telluride. Plus, with more space in Mountain Village, the opportunity for having a campus with geothermal and solar power units is much greater than if we located the campus in the Town of Telluride,” Naisbitt added. One of TSRC’s goals is to build a facility with zero energy consumption.
Mountain Village Mayor Dan Jansen said he’s hopeful the research center can be built in the area and would like to see negotiations between the towns and TSRC work out.
“We think the TSRC is a great organization to have in our community,” said Jansen. “When I say ‘community’, I mean this local area – Lawson Hill, Mountain Village and Telluride.”
But while he sees the benefits the campus poses to the region, Jansen added that he supports TSRC’s proposal and would like to see the campus located in Mountain Village, “if that is where the TSRC board really wants to be…. We want a happy and engaged TSRC and think that a beautiful campus-like setting in Mountain Village could be a great home base for them to do their meaningful work and enjoy everything that the Telluride region has to offer.”
The Scientists TSRC Attracts and the Benefits it Offers
Even though the negotiations between the town and the nonprofit were complicated by structure ownership disputes, the councilors offer unanimous support to see the campus built in downtown Telluride. In addition to the cultural benefits of having thousands of scientists visit the town, councilors and the Telluride Tourism Board see the economic benefits of having a world-class research campus located in their backyard.
In 2013, TSRC held more than 45 meetings and attracted nearly 1,200 scientists who occupied hotels, purchased from Main Street retailers and dined at restaurants. This year, TSRC brought $1.9 million in direct economic impact to the community, according to Michael Martelon, CEO of the Telluride Tourism Board.
And the research organization is growing: TSRC conservatively estimates that with a permanent campus in the region, the organization would see a ten percent annual increase in its workshop attendance annually, attracting 2,572 scientists annually by 2021, possibly reaching 3,766 by 2025, according to the organization’s business plan. Many of the scientists bring their families, said Naisbitt, which only adds to the tourism revenue generated by having a dedicated facility in the area.
Half of the scientists that visit the conferences each year are first-timers, said Naisbitt. “That’s how fast we are growing. In the past few years, [the visiting scientists] represented 92 countries of birth and 500 different academic and research institutions,” she added.
“The location of the campus does not matter to many of these scientists,” said Naisbitt. “All of the scientists will follow the science.” The towns of Vail, Crested Butte and Durango have all approached TSRC, Naisbitt added, stating their interest in hosting the science center.
But Douglas Tobias, a chemistry professor at the University of California Irvine, has been attending visiting TSRC conferences since 1999, often twice a year, and has developed a comfortable familiarity with Telluride and the surrounding area.
“It’s like my home away from home; I feel very comfortable in Telluride,” he said, adding that he’d be happy to take the gondola from his condo in Telluride to the campus in Mountain Village.
Tobias’ driving reason behind attending the meetings conferences for so long is because TSRC is the world’s only independent molecular science center - it is not affiliated with an academic institution or government, which goes a long way for many scientists who want to discuss areas in their fields without the presence of governmental or academic entities.
“The essence of the TSRC brand compared to other conferences is that it offers small, intimate and focused gatherings,” said Tobias. “The other meetings tend to host around 300 people, and even though they’re several days long and are often located in rural settings, they tend to be cliquey. Professors tend to sit and talk with professors and students tend to talk with students.
“There’s no big incentive or mechanism to cross pollinate at those conferences whereas at TSRC meetings, they’re limited in size, and the scientists spend so much time together, it almost forces these interactions to take place; it’s impossible not to interact with other scientists. I’m unaware of any other organization that offers such an intimate setting.”
The interaction and relationships the scientists forge at TSRC workshops is vital to further developing the field of molecular science, Tobias added, because the field is becoming more multi-disciplinary.
Tobias said that he’s made strong, long-lasting relationships with scientists from other fields, which have helped his career. The attendees, Tobias said, are frequently together and are almost always talking about science. Tobias recalled hiking the Bear Creek trail with other scientists and having extremely insightful conversations with the top minds in his field.
“I was the UC Irvine faculty for only two years and I hadn’t met a lot of giants in my field. At my first TSRC meeting, though, I was in the presence of these great minds in this unique environment… Making these connections is hugely important,” Tobias said, adding that he believes that the connections he made at TSRC workshops eventually helped him get tenure at UC Irvine.
And there are plenty of other examples of important connections made during TSRC’s conferences. TSRC scientists Arieh Warshel and Michael Levitt recently won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for developing multi-scale models for better understanding complex chemical systems.
“The age of molecular science is not a fad, but a natural evolution of science as it stands in the 21st century – the ability to see molecules and materials at increasingly finer scales, and to control how they are arranged in creating new molecules and materials is where we have arrived in the last 200 years,” notes the President-Elect, Peter Rossky, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and University of Texas at Austin professor.
But as other towns like Vail, Crested Butte and Durango approach TSRC and express interest in providing a permanent home for the research campus in their towns, Tobias hopes TSRC stays in the area.
“I’m really hoping that Telluride and Mountain Village can keep TSRC [in the region]. As long as there is an organization fulfilling this unique niche of offering this style of workshop, I’ll go wherever these are. My preference is always to go to Telluride,” said Tobias.