The Jackson Laboratory scraps Florida expansion plan

Posted June 03, 2011, at 9:53 p.m.

BAR  HARBOR, Maine — The Jackson Laboratory has ended its efforts to expand its operations and develop a personalized medicine research facility in Florida. The lab announced Friday that it will withdraw its request for $100 million in Florida state start-up funding for the expansion facility in Sarasota County. In a prepared statement, laboratory officials said they based their decision on the lack of funds in Florida’s severely constrained state budget, which provides only limited funding for economic development activities.

Charles E. Hewett, Jackson Lab’s executive vice president, said that senior economic development officials in Florida had been supportive but did not have access to sufficient funds to ensure a successful launch of the proposed research institute.

“We were invited to submit a much-reduced proposal to the Florida Innovation Fund, but the amount available in that fund now, and the uncertainty of future funding, made such a venture too speculative to undertake responsibly,” Hewett said in a prepared release.

Hewett indicated that this would be the final chapter in the laboratory’s Florida venture. “We understand Florida’s budget situation, and we will turn our attention to other priorities,” he said.

In the lab’s prepared release, Hewett praised the efforts of its partners in Florida.

“We are grateful to Governor Scott and the Florida legislature for considering our proposal in the midst of a challenging legislative session,” he said. “We respect that the state had to make difficult priority decisions in order to balance the budget this year. While we regret that we cannot pursue our project, we hold the state and its officials in the highest possible regard.”

The Jackson Laboratory is an independent, nonprofit biomedical research institution based in Bar Harbor and is known internationally for its use of mice to research human disease and medical conditions. Each year it produces millions of specially bred laboratory mice that are used in similar studies all over the world.

Laboratory officials initially announced plans to expand the lab’s operations to Florida in 2009, tapping Collier County as a potential expansion site. In 2010, they indicated they would partner with the University of South Florida in the venture.

But according to previous reports, the lab changed its focus in January after critics raised issues with the $130 million that Collier County was expected to contribute to the project. In March, the Sarasota County site became the focus of The Jackson Laboratory’s plans, and officials expressed the hope that its facility could become a part of a broader biomedical research community in Sarasota and Tampa.

At that time, they estimated that growth in biomedical research in that area could create as many as 2,200 new jobs in the region in the next two decades, not just with Jackson Lab, but among multiple employers, according to previous reports, and could generate $600 million annually for the local economy.

The decision to scrap the Florida expansion appears to hold no implications for Jackson Laboratory’s base facility in Bar Harbor. That facility continues to expand, adding new principal investigators and other new positions, according to laboratory spokesperson Joyce Peterson. Although it has been important from a business, scientific and logistical standpoint to have all of its operations at one site, Peterson indicated Friday that the type of facility proposed for Florida could not be adapted to Maine.

“We had a collaboration with the University of South Florida, which has a medical school. That gave us the ability to take discoveries from the bench at JAX directly to a clinical application,” Peterson said. “That was an important piece to that. That type of transitional research can’t be replicated in Maine.”

The nonprofit Jackson Laboratory had a $166 million operating budget in 2010 and, with more than 1,200 employees at its Bar Harbor campus, is the largest employer in eastern Maine. The lab, which was founded in 1929, also employs more than 100 people at a secondary site in Sacramento, Calif.

Echoing Hewett’s comment, Peterson said that Jackson Lab is not pursuing any alternate sites at this time.

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