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As biotech jobs go elsewhere, Floridians wonder: what happened?

Jackson Laboratory just cut a deal with Connecticut to build a major biotech center after failing repeatedly to expand in Florida when the state declined to provide sufficient backing.

Now the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Research will rise on the University of Connecticut's Health Center campus. At a news conference, Jackson Lab's CEO, Dr. Edison T. Liu, singled out the state's decision to invest more than $800 million at the UConn center as key to Jackson's expansion decision.

As Connecticut's New Haven Register opined, the deal was made possible "by the unwillingness of Florida's governor, Rick Scott, to pay the high cost of Jackson Laboratory's original plan — building in Sarasota. That deal — $200 million in state and county money, plus $100 million from philanthropic foundations — fell apart after Scott balked at the cost."

Fair enough. Florida can't win them all, even if high-end biotech expansions are rare, and even if Florida is trying (halfheartedly at best these days) to establish a serious biotech industry cluster.

Maine-based Jackson Lab's pick of Connecticut over Florida does not sit well in upscale Sarasota. The city's Herald-Tribune ran an editorial Monday headlined Jackson Lab Mystery asking if Scott really focused on Jackson Lab's request for state funding to help in an expansion Sarasota leaders were keen to land and planned to support generously.

Alas, the paper quotes Scott, in a recent meeting with its editorial board, hemming and hawing over Jackson Lab's negotiation with the state. Said Scott: "It never got to, I don't think they made an application to the state … not that I am aware. They might have, but it never got to me."

Ultimately, Scott said the state had to have a "good deal" to proceed with Jackson. But neither Scott nor the state development arm, Enterprise Florida, ever said why Jackson did not pass muster.

The editorial concludes: "In retrospect, too many legislators, local officials and private-sector foundations were left wondering who in state government was doing what and when. And, in our view, it's not clear — moving forward — how those connections could have been made.

"As a result," the editorial ends, "the lesson learned from our local perspective is that there is no lesson learned."

Ouch.

This is a disturbing tale for a couple of reasons.

First, if our governor insists that "jobs, jobs, jobs" is his priority, he and his team must do a better job negotiating with significant players like Jackson Lab. And if Jackson Lab really was too expensive for Florida (but not smaller Connecticut), our state leaders must clearly say why the deal did not work. Otherwise, regional economic developers will be doomed to repeat their recruiting failures.

Second, our governor recently backtracked on a major campaign promise to create 700,000 jobs in seven years above and beyond the 1 million jobs that economists say the state would create on its own. Scott now says he'll take credit for all jobs created through 2017.

When we need extreme clarity to fix Florida's economy, we're sidetracked by distortions and muddying the waters of job creation.

That's not leadership.

Contact Robert Trigaux at trigaux@sptimes.com.

As biotech jobs go elsewhere, Floridians wonder: what happened? 10/17/11 [Last modified: Monday, October 17, 2011 9:05pm]
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