Considering Janesville: An American Story (Part 10 of 14)

This is the tenth in a series of posts considering Amy Goldstein’s Janesville: An American Story. In this post, I’ll cover one chapter of Part Five (2012) of Janesville.

Goldstein writes of the broader events of 2012 (the Recall election, Ryan running for vice president) and others that are more intensely individual (a graduate of a retraining program takes her own life following a personal controversy). Of the year, though, Janesville’s desire to attract a high-tech venture stands out for its lingering uncertainty (as it’s still not established): Chapter 37’s SHINE.

SHINE Medical Technologies is a start-up company in Madison that has devised a novel method for producing a medical isotope from uranium. The isotope in question is needed in hospitals for stress tests to detect heart disease, bone scans to detect cancer metastases, and twenty-eight other diagnostic imaging purposes. The global supply of this isotope, molybdenum-99, is running low, and SHINE is one of four companies that have received $25 million, early-phase matching grants from the U.S. Department of Energy to try to develop commercially viable manufacturing methods to keep enough Moly-99 (or Mo-99), as it is known for short…

But there are challenges with SHINE, that the head of the Job Center (whose insight seems doubtful elsewhere) sees:

SHINE would not bring many jobs. [CEO] Piefer has been saying that he’d need 125 employees—a tiny fraction of the jobs that went away. And the soonest those jobs would arrive is three years from now, and it could be later, unless all goes smoothly with investment capital and the federal reviews. And whenever he’s been asked, Piefer has side-stepped the question of how many of those jobs could be filled by people from Janesville, instead of people from elsewhere with greater scientific expertise. “What are the skills he is looking for?” Bob Borremans, over at the Job Center, has been wondering. And if SHINE is going to need to import people with master’s degrees and doctorates in nuclear engineering, Bob wonders, too, what makes Piefer so confident that he can attract those people to what has essentially been a blue-collar town?

Two members of the Janesville City Council speak on opposite sides of funding SHINE (with $9 million at stake from Janesville):

One speech is by Russ Steeber, who, in addition to being the Council’s president, works as a captain in the Janesville Sheriff’s Department. Russ begins with the very words that Mary often uses. A game changer is what SHINE will be. His argument unfolds: “The city of Janesville, for almost 100 years, produced automobiles. . . . Unfortunately, those days are done, and that stream has dried up. Although we can hope that that plant someday opens its doors again, the reality is, we have to redefine what the city of Janesville is. This is one of those opportunities that can really take and define where we are for the next century. . . . And I truly believe that sometimes, when you look at making a decision like this, you have to be bold. I understand that the money the city of Janesville is about to possibly expend can be fairly extensive, but we are looking beyond SHINE. . . . We are looking at other technical type jobs that could come in, other medical research that could come in. We are looking at developing a region for the future.”

…the opposing view comes from Yuri Rashkin. Yuri is the Council’s most colorful member—born in Moscow, emigrated with his parents as a teenager, and arrived in Janesville eight years ago. He is a musician, a Russian interpreter, and a talk radio host….Yuri takes his Council work seriously, and he has concluded that the cost of the SHINE opportunity is too steep, the gamble too big, and the opportunity for public input too slim. The core of Yuri’s soliloquy is a long metaphor: “I feel like we maybe are looking to cross a river that we really need to cross, because we need the economic development, and we have a great company with people I’ve been really impressed with, who are looking to build a bridge, and they got an awesome plan, because we really need to get across the river . . . but this material has never been used, and the bridge has never been built with this stuff.”

Goldstein describes the vote succinctly: “By the time the Council members vote, two hours and twenty-one minutes have passed….But four vote yes, one abstains, and Yuri alone votes against SHINE.”

SHINE won, but (even now) one can’t be sure about Janesville.

Previously: Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 78, 9.

Tomorrow: Considering Janesville: An American Story (Part 11 of 14).

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