Lab’s Florida plans a Maine issue

Posted April 29, 2010, at 9:15 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:45 a.m.

BAR HARBOR, Maine — The Florida Legislature has taken another step closer to providing millions of dollars in state funds to entice The Jackson Laboratory to expand there, according to lab officials.

While elected officials in Florida have been considering whether to allocate public money toward the Bar Harbor-based laboratory’s expansion plans, the topic has entered the debate among gubernatorial candidates in Maine, where the lab employs nearly 1,200 people.

On Monday, members of Florida’s House and Senate recommended that $50 million be included in that state’s Innovation Incentive Program as part of a three-year commitment of $130 million, Jackson Lab said in a news release. The recommendation will become final if the full Florida Legislature approves it and it is signed by Gov. Charlie Crist, according to lab officials.

If Florida approves the funding measure, Collier County is expected to contribute another $130 million to the project and Jackson Lab would contribute $120 million, for a total of $380 million.

Jackson Lab, founded in Bar Harbor in 1929, uses mice to study human disease and medical conditions and each year breeds millions of mice that are used in similar studies around the world. It is one of the largest employers in eastern Maine and is the largest in Hancock County.

In October, officials at the biomedical research lab announced that they hoped to establish a new institute for personalized medicine in Florida’s Collier County, near Naples. Advances in genetics research have enhanced the possibilities for treating patients based on their unique genetic makeup, Rick Woychik, the lab’s president and CEO, said in a statement at the time.

“We are on the verge of a whole new era in medicine, and we expect to play a pioneering role in the science that will accelerate personalized medicine,” he said.

Lab officials have also explained that, besides the potential for state and county financial investment, the presence of other biomedical research entities in Florida such as the Scripps, Torrey Pines, Burnham and Max Planck institutes help make the state an appealing location for the lab’s planned institute.

“If approved by the [Florida] governor, the final budget will be an essential vote of confidence that will help us attract the institutional partnerships and the matching funds we would need for the project to proceed,” Rick Woychik, the lab’s outgoing CEO, said Monday in the news release.

Joyce Peterson, spokeswoman for Jackson Lab, said Wednesday that the lab could employ as many as 200 people to work at the institute in the next several years, if it decides to continue pursuing the project. Of those, she said, maybe half a dozen would be jobs that move to Florida from Bar Harbor. She said the lab doesn’t have any projections for possible job growth in Florida beyond the next several years.

According to Peterson, Jackson Lab plans to create at least 200 new jobs in Bar Harbor within the next five to 10 years, regardless of what might happen in Florida. She said Thursday that the full Florida Legislature could approve the measure today.

Campaign questions

Les Otten, a Republican running for governor in Maine, has pointed to Jackson Lab’s interest in expanding to Florida as an example of the failures of Maine’s state government. Otten has claimed that, by not doing enough to get Jackson Lab to establish the institute here, Maine stands to miss out on the creation of 7,000 jobs.

According to Jackson Lab officials, the 7,000 jobs estimate is the total projected in an economic analysis of what could materialize among many entities, including Jackson Lab, in a wider biotechnology research zone in Collier County.

“Florida is recruiting one of Maine’s best companies to expand there,” Otten said last week in a news release. “Maine just threw up its hands.”

When Otten made a similar remark at a recent Republican gubernatorial debate in Bangor, he was confronted by Republican primary opponent Peter Mills, who called Otten’s claims that Maine would lose 7,000 jobs a “falsehood.”

“The state of Maine is not sending 7,000 jobs to Florida,” Mills told Otten. “The state of Maine couldn’t possibly have competed for that facility.”

Despite the criticism, Otten has stood by his comments.

The Governor’s Office told The Associated Press earlier this month that Maine can’t match the financial incentives being offered by Florida.

Maine would have liked to have the jobs that would be created in Florida, said David Farmer, spokesman for Gov. John Baldacci. But Florida’s budget and population dwarf those of Maine — meaning Maine simply can’t offer the same incentives, he said.

“We just don’t have the scale to do the same types of things Florida does,” Farmer said. “They’re a much bigger state, and it’s a much different circumstance there than it is here.”

Not all the gubernatorial candidates have spoken out on the issue, but some have. Republican Matt Jacobson’s campaign issued a news release on the topic this week, and Democrat Rosa Scarcelli offered an opinion piece on the topic that was published last week in the Portland Press Herald. Republican Paul LePage and Demo-crat John Richardson, who has since dropped out of the race, also have publicly commented on the matter.

In his statement, Jacobson said there has been “a lot of screaming and political posturing” in the campaign about the issue, but he added that it would be unwise for Maine to try to match what Florida is offering.

“Spending hundreds of millions of dollars to attract 200 jobs in a not-for-profit company like Jackson Lab is not the best economic development plan for Maine,” Jacobson wrote. He said Maine lacks the resources for training a biotechnology workforce or for attracting biotechnology companies. If Maine tried to offer the same sort of incentives that are offered by larger states and other countries, he said, “it will fail.”

In her piece, Scarcelli wrote that Maine could have done more to try to get Jackson Lab to open the new research facility in Maine. She said Maine leaders “shrugged” when they heard the news that the lab might expand to Florida.

“The Jackson Lab jobs are exactly the type of clean, high-tech jobs that every politician running for office promises to bring to Maine,” Scarcelli wrote. “If we can’t compete for these jobs from a company that is already headquartered here, how are we ever going to attract new companies and new jobs to Maine?”

Scarcelli also suggested that in exchange for the public funding Jackson Lab has received from Maine over the past decade — an investment she called “worthwhile” — perhaps Maine should be given more consideration in the lab’s expansion plans. She said the lab has received more than $40 million in public money from Maine in the past decade.

“But is it too much to expect that in return for this money, Maine should get first refusal on any new facility the company plans to create?” Scarcelli wrote.

Plans complement Lab research

According to Peterson, the lab has received nearly $43 million in public funds from Maine over the past 10 years. The lab now has 281 more jobs than it did in 2000, she added, and in that time its budget has more than doubled, from $84 million to $191 million.

Peterson said 95 percent of the lab’s budget comes from sources out of state but 85 percent of it is spent in Maine. Of its current $166 million annual operating revenue, $54 million comes from public support, according to the lab’s website. The lab is receiving $8.3 million in federal funds this year as a result of the federal stimulus package, and much of the lab’s funding typically comes in the form of grants from the federal National Institutes of Health.

Michael Hyde, Jackson Lab’s vice president for advancement and external relations, declined Wednesday to comment specifically about the gubernatorial race or any of the candidates.

But Hyde said the lab’s work in Florida would complement, rather than compete with, its research and operations in Bar Harbor, much like the lab’s expansion more than a decade ago to California, where it employs nearly 100 people in Sacramento. He said public funding in Maine for the lab has been instrumental in the lab’s expansion in Bar Harbor.

“We’ve grown dramatically in the past several years,” Hyde said. “We want to continue that partnership.”

Political observations

Sandy Maisel, government professor and director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs at Colby College in Waterville, said Wednesday that, given its size, it is natural that Jackson Lab’s expansion plans would draw attention.

“Anytime a Maine employer talks about anything out of state, it makes people nervous,” Maisel said.

He said that there is a chance that the lab’s expansion in Florida could affect the outcome of future technology bond referendums in Maine, but only if the institute in Collier County is viewed as an overly expensive, flashy project.

“That [development approach] seems to be not in their nature,” Maisel said of the lab.

Jamie McKown, professor of government and polity at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, said Wednesday that job creation in Maine is likely to be an issue throughout the campaign. Jackson Lab’s plans in Florida, however, likely are not compelling enough to voters to remain a hot topic all the way until November, he fore-cast. Other examples of what the state should do to create jobs in Maine probably will arise in the campaign before then, he said.

McKown said the experience of being dragged into the campaign must make lab officials uneasy because it makes it difficult for the lab to control its own message. He said it is not surprising that the lab seems to want to stay out of the political debate. Anything the lab might say about the campaign or candidates might only serve to further polarize the rhetoric, he said.

“It really becomes an uncomfortable position to be in,” McKown said. “I can’t imagine they’re overly excited about it.”

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