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Lost SSC project still resonates with county residents

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The Ellis County Press

Look to the side of Highway 66 in Waxahachie, a ways off in the field, and you’ll see ruins.

Decrepit buildings represent 14 miles of lost potential tunneled beneath the surface, the dark tomb of the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC).

The only legacy of this once-promising endeavor is a bitter aftertaste of resentment and futility from those who lost land through eminent domain, job opportunities and the like to the failed project. Its main impact was on the county itself and some of its aftershocks are still felt today.

An ambitious undertaking, the SSC was first envisioned in 1983 at the National Reference Designs Study and site examination started in 1987.

Instead of near Fermilab in Illinois, the site plan went to Waxahachie due to Texas’ offer to cover $1 billion of the cost and for Waxahachie’s location on easily excavated limestone.

"I was working at Fermilab in a projects group studying cryogenics research when I first heard of the SSC," George Mulholland of Ovilla, a former SSC scientist, said. "I learned of it in 1989 and moved here in 1991 and was hired as a cryogenics operations manager."

Major construction started in 1991, bringing with it major migration.

Around 200 or so physicists came to the area leaning on the promise of a sustaining career in a new complex. Yet others unwillingly migrated as well, though this time away from the SSC.

"Early on, they [the government] sent me a letter saying they were going to take my land," said Frank Hazzard, an eminent domain victim from Midlothian. "I had lived there for 17 years after buying the land in ’76 and building a house. When I had the place just as I wanted it, the government took it from me."

Work pushed on, and 14.6 miles of tunneling, along with 17 shafts to the surface, was finished. By then, $2 billion had been poured into the effort, when Congress finally cancelled the project in 1993. When the SSC was killed, it buried the ambitions of prospective employees as well.

"I was in Waxahachie when the press questioned me on what I thought should happen to the buildings of the killed project," said Ellis County Commissioner Ron Brown, who was elected in 1991 and is the court’s longest serving member. "I suggested it be turned into a prison complex, but it never went through."

Before the new arrivals felt the sting of the lost complex, evicted landowners had already lost much of their property. Upon hearing the news, the realization that their sacrifices were in vain came into play.

"On April 1, 1991, I told the people I wasn’t moving. That day people came out with a big truck and hauled everything off from us," Hazzard said. "The SSC was a political game because when it was shut down, they wouldn’t play honest ball with us. It would have put a lot of jobs here, but it turned out to just be a drain in the federal pocket book."

Soon afterwards, a mild recession hit the Dallas area, mainly south of the Trinity River. Eminent domain victims and scientists without employment were left to gather the fragments of their smashed lives.

"Virtually everyone I knew moved here as specialists and had to buy homes in a relatively aggressive market," Mulholland said. "Tens of thousands of dollars were lost upon the project’s termination when many of them sold their homes in a declined market and moved back to their original locations. I don’t know of anyone who did not lose money."

Following its cancellation, the site was deeded to Ellis County, which in the following years attempted numerous times to sell the land before finally succeeding. Today it remains unoccupied.

"The land was sold on August 8, 2006, to a gentleman named Roger Gaskins and his associates," said Holly Davis, Ellis County’s special projects coordinator.

Numerous factors led to the cancellation of the SSC, including a cost far past the one expected, mismanagement by physicists and Department of Energy officials. President Bill Clinton urged Congress to continue the project, saying that canceling it "…would signal that the United States is compromising its position of leadership in basic science."

"It makes me sick whenever I drive past the old, vacant buildings and see the lost homes, tax dollars and potential in them," Brown said, who first entered politics as a Red Oak school board member. "I felt like it should have been used for something [emphasis his], but today it’s empty. I’ve always wondered what we could have learned if it was completed."

The impact of the collider’s failure shook numerous fields as well. Both personal lives and various industries and studies have slowly rebuilt themselves after the letdown of the project.

"The cryogenics industry never really recovered from the SSC. The industry was prospecting hundreds of millions of dollars in business with the SSC, but it never happened," Mulholland said. "Because of that, large cryogenic refrigerators are now available in Europe with little competition."

Reverberations of the collider’s collapse still faintly resonate today. Whether in peoples’ memories or today’s science, the SSC stands as a lost ambition that lost some people many things in a tumultuous case of politics.

"The land I had was where I chose to settle, and after spending a lot of money fixing it how I wanted it, I lost the opportunity to live how I wanted to there," Hazzard said. "That’s when I began to feel like you lose all your freedom."

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