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An ecstatic Sarasota recruits Jackson Lab, but can it pay for such a rich deal?

When the Mouse (also known as Disney) arrived in Central Florida some 40 years ago, it quickly became a game changer for the state tourism economy.

Now there's hope in Sarasota that the arrival of a next-generation Mouse will boost the regional biotech industry.

Jackson Laboratory, based in Bar Harbor, Maine, and boasting impressive research credentials in mouse genetics (not to mention $100 million a year it gets just selling lab mice) decided more than a year ago to expand into the Sunshine State. The nonprofit firm negotiated at length with Collier County, then later ping-ponged between competing Hillsborough and Sarasota county business recruiters.

A final decision, of a sort, took place last week. Jackson Lab executives declared it will build a 120,000-square-foot research facility in Sarasota County as a first step in creating a small biotech cluster or, as Jackson calls it, a "biomedical village." Sounds great — if all the promised state and local incentives arrive and private funding delivers.

This isn't meant to rain on Sarasota's parade. On the contrary, all of Tampa Bay and Florida should celebrate a research organization of this caliber expanding here. The $46 million that Jackson Lab received in National Institutes of Health grants ranks fifth among U.S. research institutes, ahead of better-known names like the Salk Institute and Tampa's H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center.

That's pretty good company at any dinner party. Jackson Lab, whose work focuses on ways to fight cancer and other major diseases, was planning from the start to partner with the University of South Florida, no matter where in the state it landed. USF's role will be no less significant in Sarasota than it would had Jackson chosen a Hillsborough County site. Jackson also will operate offices and small labs at USF in Tampa.

As a state, Florida's been big (if inconsistent at times) on encouraging a growing biotech presence ever since former Gov. Jeb Bush secretly traveled to California in 2003 with an enormous incentive package to persuade biotech elite Scripps Research Institute to open a facility. Scripps did so, choosing to build on Florida's east coast. Ever since, the statewide biotech movement could be described as "BS" and "AS" — Before Scripps and After Scripps.

Regionally, Tampa Bay identifies biotech as one of its "industry clusters" that the broader metro area wants to cultivate long term to create smarter industries and better-paying jobs.

As for Sarasota, there's a giddiness in the air. Jackson Lab executives even acknowledge Sarasota's community intensity in their decision. To be sure, the research firm will stand out locally as a bigger fish there than it would in Tampa amid such high-profile biotech players as Moffitt, Draper Lab and M2Gen, all clustered near USF.

To Hillsborough's credit, county economic development officials crunched their numbers carefully when Jackson Lab asked for a $300 million incentive package that would have required the county to toss in $100 million or so. The county concluded the public's direct return on such an investment over 20 years would be about $87 million.

Few larger-scale incentive packages wind up in the black. Still, in such economic times, kudos for Hillsborough for at least considering taxpayer payback.

Which leads to this question for Sarasota: Now that Jackson said yes, how will it find $300 million?

Step one: Sarasota County alone is committed to raising about $100 million to cover the cost of bonds financing Jackson Lab's state-of-the-art facility. That will require a public referendum on raising county taxes likely to take place this summer. Given the economic climate, the state's rejection of high-speed rail and Hillsborough County voters rejecting a tax increase to fund a county-level mass transit improvement, even relatively well-off Sarasota shouldn't assume funding will be a slam dunk.

The county estimates Jackson Lab's arrival will translate to 2,200 new jobs and $600 million a year in economic impacts by 2030. The challenge these days is the public does not seem to care — not nearly as much as it did in better times — what's likely to be gained 19 years in the future.

Step two: Will Gov. Rick Scott support the Jackson Lab with state funding? The project is said to be seeking another $100 million or so in state money to be phased in over the next several years. When he was governor, Charlie Crist offered state backing to recruit Jackson. But the economy is weaker now, and the state budget is deeper in the red.

Jackson Lab is a big-ticket addition to any state and is expected to be an eventual job generator. Florida should try to find a way to make such a deal happen. But I've still got to consider Scott's support of this deal a Big Maybe.

Step three: Sarasota's convinced it has a base of wealth to raise tens of millions more for Jackson Lab from the area community. This deal soon will test that philanthropic bench strength.

Who knew lab mice would be so pricey?

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

An ecstatic Sarasota recruits Jackson Lab, but can it pay for such a rich deal? 03/05/11 [Last modified: Sunday, March 6, 2011 1:24pm]

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