BAR HARBOR, Maine — There’s a lot of talk in Collier County, Florida these days about a proposal to raise $130 million in taxpayer dollars in order to bring a Jackson Laboratory research facility to the Naples area.
“I’ve never seen so much public reaction,” Collier County Commissioner Jim Coletta said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “There are a large number of people who are very, very supportive of going forward and about the same number who don’t want us to go forward at all.”
In preparation for their July 27 decision deadline, Coletta and his colleague Donna Fiala are headed to Maine this weekend, separately, to get an on-the-ground look at the laboratory’s operations in Bar Harbor.
“I want to see with my own eyes what’s going on on the ground,” Coletta said.
The two commissioners are traveling separately, staying in separate accommodations and maintaining distinct agendas in order to comply with Florida’s “sunshine law” that prohibits elected officials from meeting privately to discuss official business.
Their trip to Mount Desert Island coincides not only with a high-profile visit by a vacationing President Barack Obama and his family but also with Jackson Laboratory’s own annual business meeting and alumni reunion that attracts dozens of former students, scientists, donors and others to the facility. Coletta and Fiala will have their choice of pre-arranged student presentations, facility tours, awards dinners, meetings and other events to attend, as well as some special attention from laboratory officials, said spokeswoman Joyce Peterson.
“This is a very good opportunity for people to learn about the lab,” she said.
The Jackson Laboratory has proposed building a genetic research facility in Naples, Fla. Laboratory officials have indicated that if the project goes forward it will employ approximately 200 people within the next several years.
The project could form the hub of an expanded research park in the area and provide a significant boost to the regional economy, Coletta said. He said the county already has heard from a number of biomedical firms expressing interest in the project. One study has shown that such a research park could generate up to 7,000 biotechnology research jobs in the area.
“Collier County has been looking for some sort of venture for some time to take us to the next level,” Coletta said. The region’s traditional reliance on tourism and construction, he said, is not enough to stabilize the economy.
The state of Florida has committed $130 million to bring Jackson Lab to the area, with $50 million already approved in the state budget.
“We’ll be required to put up another $130 million,” Coletta said. If commissioners approve the project, that money could be raised in the form of increased property taxes or an excise tax on electrical bills, he said. The revenue-raising initiative could be spread over a number of years, he said.
But feelings are running high in Collier County. According to local news coverage, many residents oppose the tax increase generally, while others say government incentives should be used to help local businesses and not to bring in out-of-state organizations. At a public meeting in June, about 50 employees from a local medical devices manufacturing firm protested the project, some carrying signs reading “Keep the Mouse Moochers in Maine,” according to a local news outlet.
The Jackson Laboratory is one of the largest producers in the world of genetically altered mice for research purposes. It also is home to a mammalian genetics program that attracts researchers and students from around the world.
The Jackson Laboratory employs about 1,200 people at its Bar Harbor home. Officials there have said the nonprofit organization has no plans to leave Maine and expects to increase its payroll by 200 positions within the next decade.
In 2001, The Jackson Laboratory opened a satellite facility in Sacramento, Calif., that employs about 100 people.
Fiala said in an e-mail that she expected to fly into the Hancock County-Bar Harbor Airport on Wednesday night. Coletta planned to arrive Friday afternoon. He said he would not be surprised to encounter minor delays related to the Obamas’ travel plans but that he hoped the commissioners’ business trip would not be otherwise complicated by the first family’s vacation.