Comsat: Envision it as a learning magnet

Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2005

by Doug Tanner

As a former Comsat employee, I have followed the debate over the future of the 230-acre Comsat Laboratories campus in Clarksburg. It was a great place to work, even though I was there long after its pioneering days in satellite telecommunications in the 1960s and 1970s.

The debate comes down, on the one hand, to the understandable desire on the part of the present owner?developer, LCOR of Pennsylvania, to maximize its commercial yield from the property by razing the present buildings in favor of a mix of new commercial and residential development.

These plans presumably would accommodate the Corridor Cities Transitway stop between Frederick and Shady Grove Metro called for by the 1994 Clarksburg Master Plan, should that link be built.

On the other are arrayed those who appreciate, and wish to memorialize, the heritage represented by the facility by preserving at least the core building under an historic landmark designation. These include the building’s principal designer, internationally renowned architect Cesar Pelli, and numerous voices and organizations from the community.

Viable plan needed

I would like to make the point that no effort to adapt and reopen the core building, now closed, is likely to succeed without a viable plan for making that building a unique attraction that will draw strong public interest and paying visitors on a sustaining basis.

This plan should offer at least as much return on investment as the developer could expect from other intended uses (not ruling out other uses that could benefit by proximity to such an attraction).

There are many possibilities that could turn the Clarksburg facility into an educational and recreational activity center that could rival San Francisco’s Exploratorium as a draw for children, parents, educators and others. That would be to make the Clarksburg building a hands-on science and technology exhibition and learning center that could represent the many cutting edge technologies in the Washington, D.C., area with many components in addition to satellite technology.

One could be biotech. The Washington Post announced on Aug. 15 that molecular biologist and genetic research pioneer J. Craig Ventner has endowed a Rockville research institute in his name that has purchased a large archive of primary material in that field for consultation by scholars. Why crowded Rockville? Why not invite Mr. Ventner to collocate his research library in Clarksburg along with a Comsat library and archive?

Represent other fields

Many other fields of science, technology and human perception could be represented within such a facility.

The main Comsat Lab building is laid out like an enclosed mall with a capacious central two-story corridor and branching office wings.

The former satellite construction bays (never used as such) are large enough to hold exhibits featuring, for example, astronomy and astrophysics, fields that are rife with learning possibilities. One or another of these bays might even possibly be large enough for an IMAX theater.

I am suggesting that the parties to the present debate raise their sights and join in envisioning a regional facility — prominently located along the I-270 Technology Corridor — that would become a learning magnet and touchstone representing the totality of the aspirations and endeavors that stimulate and ennoble broad scientific and technological advances. Architecture, digital computing, geology and paleontology, kinesiology (human movement and athletics), neuroscience, transportation — the possibilities are endless!

Clarksburg's identity

As its residential, commercial and transportation infrastructure matures — and as population growth and increasing mobility drive area residents to seek a wider range of leisure time destinations — Clarksburg would be well advised to decide how it wishes to be known.

With a multipurpose learning and recreational facility such as the one outlined above, it has the opportunity to reach out to a larger regional community of interest and become a distinctive "home town with a difference."

Comsat? Clarksburg? Just the place.

Doug Tanner of Damascus is a former Comsat Technology Systems employee (1988-94).

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