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Plan to bring biotech firm to Sarasota is in trouble

Sarasota County's hugely expensive deal to land a prestigious biomedical firm is in trouble.

The county had put together a $300 million incentive package to win a recruiting battle with Hillsborough and Collier counties for the Jackson Laboratory in Maine. Jackson would set up a research facility in Sarasota, establish a partnership with University of South Florida researchers and create hundreds of well-paid jobs.

The plan relied on $100 million in state money, but state lawmakers warn that the project is in disarray and its funding request too late for the budget-strapped Legislature to act on this year.

Without state funding, the deal is probably dead or at least delayed. Other states, including Texas and Utah, have their eyes on Jackson Lab, too.

Sarasota wants Jackson Lab, which does genetics research on diseases and ranks fifth in grants from the National Institutes of Health, to anchor a fledgling biotech business.

In early March, Jackson Lab executives declared they would build a 120,000-square-foot research facility in Sarasota County as a first step in creating a "biomedical village."

The plan's setback in Tallahassee was the topic of a front-page story in Thursday's Sarasota Herald-Tribune. The paper cited state lawmakers who say the 60-day legislative session in Tallahassee is nearly half over and they have yet to see a formal funding request on the incentive package.

One backer of the Jackson Lab project, Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, complained he can't secure state funding because Jackson Lab and the county have not clearly presented their request. He told the Herald-Tribune that the budget request was the "most disorganized" he has seen in 10 years in the Legislature.

In addition, Sarasota County voters would have to pass a referendum for any financial commitment of $20 million or more.

The $300 million incentive package is big by state standards.

It roughly rivals the initial 2003 offer that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush waved at biotech giant Scripps Research in California to consider establishing a facility in Florida. (Scripps did so, and operates Scripps Florida in Jupiter.)

Both Hillsborough and Collier counties said they could not justify that level of incentives.

Only Sarasota County, citing an economic analysis by the consulting firm Regional Economic Models Inc., said it could meet the state's mandate that Florida recoup any economic incentive investment within 20 years.

To help its uphill fight for money, Sarasota County hired research consultant Battelle Memorial Institute of Columbus, Ohio, to advise it during negotiations with Jackson Lab. University of Central Florida economist Sean Snaith also has been retained to assess the area's potential for a biotech industry cluster.

Information from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and Bradenton Herald was used in this report. Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Plan to bring biotech firm to Sarasota is in trouble 03/24/11 [Last modified: Thursday, March 24, 2011 9:43pm]
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