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Florida County Postpones Decision on $130M Funding for Jackson Lab Campus

By Alex Philippidis

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – Officials in Florida's Collier County today postponed a final decision on a $130 million partial subsidy for The Jackson Laboratory toward the personalized medicine campus it has proposed near Naples.

Instead, Collier's Board of County Commissioners heard from project supporters, opponents, and the chairman of the county's Government Productivity Committee, which advises the commissioners' board on economic development issues, who said the Jackson Lab project is too risky to be economically viable.

At issue is whether Collier County should match the $130 million approved by Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and state lawmakers as an economic incentive toward the Jackson Lab project — even though state funding remains uncertain due to the Congressional stalemate over additional Medicaid money. In return for state and county subsidies, the laboratory has promised in return to raise $120 million toward the project through a philanthropic campaign.

Headquartered in Bar Harbor, Me., Jackson Lab plans next year to open a translational genetics research institute set to employ 244 people by 2020, within a temporary facility that will give way two years later to a permanent campus. The campus — within 50 acres to be donated by developer Barron Collier Cos. — is expected to be the first of several projects comprising a "biomedical research and education village" envisioned as including several academic institutions, plus startup and mature life-sciences companies.

Productivity Committee Chairman Steve Harrison told the commissioners the Jackson Lab project relies too much on taxpayer funds and on projections that the larger "biomedical research and education village" cluster that would begin with the laboratory would be successful.

"At the end of the day, there are so many unknowns that it's difficult to express a firm, positive endorsement of the economic viability [of the project] until some more of these econ gaps are filled in," Harrison told the commissioners during the meeting, which was webcast.

"You need commitment from a research university and a teaching hospital that in our view should precede the disbursement of funds for this project. Those are critical to the success, in our view," Harrison added.

Jackson Lab and the University of South Florida say they have addressed both commitments through a personalized medicine partnership with the University of South Florida that will include research collaborations, professional training programs, and a clinical initiative.

Stephen Klasko, senior vice president for USF Health and dean of USF's College of Medicine, said USF President Judy Genshaft has allowed the partners to request approval to use state Public Education Capital Outlay funds "for a building down here that would combine the best of Jackson and the best of USF Health." A Jackson Laboratory executive said last week a new facility for the partnership was a possibility, as was the hosting of research within the labs of each partner.

Klasko said the partnership would use Jackson's genetic tools and technologies to help patients predict their personal predisposition to Alzheimer's disease, diabetes and other disorders.

"If there was one area of research that I would invest in if I was a commissioner for my county, it would be pharmacogenomics, matching the right drugs to you [with] safety, quality, and efficiency. And we look at developing and deploying these new technologies not only for patients but for students," he said.

The partnership is also looking to spread the use of electronic medical records, and in April won a $6 million grant from the $862 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to do so in the Tampa Bay region.

"Working with Jackson [Lab] and their bioinformatics team will make us that much more productive, and will make Florida and Collier County that much more of a [biomedical] center," Klasko said. "It truly is a partnership that will change the DNA right here in Collier County."

Karen Holbrook, vice president for research and innovation, told commissioners USF finished the fiscal year ending June 30 with a record-high $17.6 million generated by USF's office of technology and licensing — largely due to commercialization by a faculty member of technology used in a drug later found to treat diabetes. USF, she said, finished the fiscal year with 161 disclosures, 85 patent submissions, 35 new patents affirmed, and "four to five" new companies started up.

"This happened just for the university. But when you're working with something like the Jackson Laboratory, I think you will see that amplified very significantly," Holbrook said.

She also said additional partners would be likely for Jackson Lab and USF, since she has been invited to participate in a new county biomedical advisory board that will work to recruit nonprofit and for-profit life-science employers.

Harrison said that should Collier County insist on helping fund the laboratory project, officials should negotiate several stipulations that would soften the blow to county taxpayers. He said parts of the $130 million should come from Barron Collier, and possibly as well from a portion of income to be generated from future patents and royalties resulting from Jackson Lab's collaborations with USF and other partners. A Jackson Lab official last week said he could not comment because the research center had not been asked to consider such an option.

In addition, Harrison suggested, Collier should ask nonprofit universities and hospitals involved with the laboratory to make in-lieu-of-tax payments to the county.

The project drew support from Joe Shepard, Florida Gulf Coast University's vice president for administrative services and finance; and Jeff Allbritten, president of the Collier county campus of Edison State College. Both academic institutions hope to partner with USF and Jackson Lab.

"How we respond to this opportunity will be a measure of our collective vision, courage, and desire to shape our destiny, instead of allowing external economic forces to shape it for us," said Allbritten, a former chair of the life sciences working group of the public-private Economic Development Council of Collier County, a key supporter of the Jackson Lab project.

Board of County Commissioners Chairman Fred Coyle said additional potential partners "are in discussion right now."

"They may or may not agree to be part of this partnership. But the more partners we collectively can develop with respect to this project, the less risky the investment becomes for the people of Collier County, and the more benefit we derive from it," Coyle said.

Several residents, however, countered that the benefits to the laboratory and biomedical village were outweighed by the project's cost to county taxpayers. Some have equated the county funding to corporate welfare, though the laboratory is a nonprofit organization.

"The people of Collier County must not become a sugar daddy to Jackson Lab or anyone," resident Scott Bonham told commissioners. "This is a stupid move. Do not do it, please."

Jackson Lab, and its supporters among the county commissioners, countered that the project would benefit Collier County by weaning its economy away from the seasonal, and now-struggling, anchors of real estate and tourism. Supporters have said the laboratory and the biomedical village will generate numerous long-term jobs that will pay more than the county's median income — as well as several research partnerships expected in turn to generate additional life-science activity. Earlier this month, a consultant to the EDC projected that the village and Jackson Lab would generate a total 4,913 jobs by 2020 and 11,490 jobs by 2032.

Collier hopes to join other Florida communities in welcoming new research institutes focused on molecular biology and other life-sciences specialties. That effort has been stoked over the past decade by the state and local governments, which have showered more than $1 billion in economic incentives to a half-dozen institutes.

In May, Crist and state lawmakers approved the state's piece of a three-year, $130 million funding package for Jackson Lab. The laboratory would receive its first $50 million portion during the current fiscal year, which began July 1.

But the money was approved under the assumption that Congress would approve $24 billion in additional Medicaid funding, including about $1 billion for Florida. The Medicaid money was removed from a bill that passed the US House of Representatives; the US Senate has not restored the funding, despite support voiced for that idea by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

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