Good-bye, Columbus

by francine Hardaway on November 21, 2002

I spent the week-end in Columbus, Ohio, the first time I had been east in a couple of years. It was raining when I arrived, it rained both week-end days, and it was raining when I left. In fact, I was never sure if it was day or night during my stay, because it never got light. Not light the way I am used to it: the kind of light that occasions sunglasses.

This was a big shock to me, because even when it rains in Arizona, we don’t get that everyday dreariness that characterizes the late fall in the midwest and the northeast. I wondered how people got themselves motivated to get out of bed in that weather.

And yet, people continue to live there. Smart people. Big companies like Battelle and Nationwide are headquartered there. Large universities are there. My business partner, who grew up in Columbus, says it is a good place to start a business because there’s not much else to do.

Here in Arizona, we have a lot else to do, because the weather’s great and the natural surroundings are beautiful. We do, however, have a shortage of successful businesses at present.

But now, TGen has started its “business” here, and the world will finally find out what a great place this is to live. Already, its three new hires have bought homes in Anthem, Paradise Valley, and Fountain Hills: seems like quite a commute downtown to us locals, but not to someone from the east, where the commute was invented. The TGen people are so happy to be out of Columbus, or Bethesda, or New Jersey, that they don’t mind driving past all those miles of red tile roofs to get to work.

I warn you right now: this is a pro-TGen stance I am about to take. Yes, TGen is a non-profit research institute that will study the genetic basis of disease. Yes, it may take a while to reap the economic development benefits of its basic science research. Yes, the state put a lot of money into TGen that might have gone elsewhere down the social services or the correctional drain.

But — TGen is also an important public/private partnership that will bring together some of the best minds here in Arizona with some top researchers from across the nation. Both the Human Genome Project and TGen have gotten national exposure and that will attract national talent. It will bring the best and the brightest to us and to the three universities.

The people who are attracted to the idea of translational genomics are not welfare recipients or retirees. They already have grants that will follow them if they chose to move here. Listen carefully: they come with money.

More important, TGen will focus on translating scientific research into medical advances for patients. TGen isn’t a semiconductor company or a golf club manufacturer, a call center or a restaurant chain. It’s a partnership dedicated to using research in genomics to improve the quality of life all over the world.

However, because we were lucky enough to attract it, TGen’s first foci are melanoma, diabetes, neurological diseases (Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s), prostate cancer and pancreatic cancer. In Arizona, we have plenty of all of these. We’re the melanoma capital of the world. We have a surplus of native Americans with diabetes. And we have even more elderly people who are destined to get Alzheimer’s.

People live in places like Rochester, MN because of the Mayo Clinic, and Cleveland, OH because of the Cleveland Clinic. They gravitate to good health care. An aging demographic accelerates this.

They move to places like San Francisco and San Jose because of the exciting jobs, enduring high living costs and lousy commutes. The baby boom echo will accelerate this, unless we put some of those exciting jobs here.

Until recently, smart, successful people came to Arizona only for the golf. But I count on TGen to reverse the brain drain that has plagued Arizona. As we gradually come to the attention of the scientific community, we will come to the attention of the rest of the smart people as well.

We can quit spending money on ads to lure tourists to Arizona. We can quit spending money on branding campaigns that change every year and don’t work anyway. If we play our cards right, TGen will do our branding work for us. If Arizona becomes the place where cures for melanoma, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, prostate and pancreatic cancer are found, there will be no shortage of tourists, startups, retirees, or corporate headquarters.

And then all our children will come home.

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