The community of Aurora, Colo., fought hard in the late ’90s to hold off the planned closing of their Fitzsimons Army Medical Center. The military base just outside Denver, which finally closed in 1999, employed 4,000 people.
Were it not for fortuitous timing, this story would likely have ended with the regional economic decline that typically follows the close of an Army base. But today, the area that used to host the medical center employs 9,000 people and counting — all thanks to a series of deals that has turned the area into a bioscience corridor.
As Jill Farnham, executive director of the Fitzsimons Redevelopment Authority, explains it, the base closure was going on at about the same time that the University of Colorado’s hospital and health sciences center had both outgrown their sites and were looking for a place to move. The 600-acre, soon-to-be-abandoned military base looked appealing. After negotiations with the Army, the university acquired 270 acres of the lot to build a new hospital and health sciences center, and the remainder of the land was reserved by the community with plans to turn it into a life sciences business park.
The redevelopment authority hopes that this step will give Colorado the boost it needs to break into the coveted top 10 of states with a bioscience presence (now, it’s usually ranked around 12th, says Farnham). She says the state has a number of things going for it already: its public universities are in the top 10 highest funded by NIH, the state hosts close to 400 life science companies, there’s a good amount of venture capital, and there’s already an active life science trade association.
So far, the university hospital already opened the doors of a new, 1 million-plus-square-foot facility, and the Children’s Hospital and Research Center was slated to open by this month. The university health sciences research center plans to open by June 2008, and negotiations are just being completed to bring a Veterans Administration hospital to the site as well. As for the science and technology business park, “what we’ve got today is a 60,000-square-foot incubator facility, and another 125,000-square-foot building that houses more mature companies,” Farnham says. Plans are in place to add a much larger building that would open in 2009.
And as far as employment figures go, Farnham says that by the end of 2007 there should be about 12,000 people working at the Fitzsimons site, with projections of 15,000 by the end of next year. At full capacity — which could take 20 years — the site is expected to have more than 16 million square feet of space, and more than 30,000 people working there.
“What we think is exciting is the environment that we’re trying to create,” Farnham says. To help that along, her redevelopment authority has also been working to establish a few small funds to provide seed money to startup bioscience companies.