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Will billionaires welcome brains?

While Palm Beach County is practically doing backflips to welcome California's Scripps Research Institute to Florida _ and doling out $200-million to build it a branch campus _ this island enclave is much harder to impress.

Yes, Scripps Florida will bring world-renowned scientists, high-paying jobs and perhaps even a breakthrough medical discovery to a region now best known for its clogged highways and pricy real estate.

"But are they billionaires?" asked Shannon Donnelly, the Palm Beach Daily News' society editor, who recently covered a local polo match where champagne was helicoptered in at halftime and served from a fleet of Hummers.

A mere scientist, even one with patents, biotech spinoffs and a shot at a Nobel prize, may hardly create a ripple in a community where social status is determined by pedigree and portfolio size, not intellect.

Palm Beach counts at least 20 billionaires among its 10,500 residents, from media mogul John Kluge with over $10-billion to Tampa Bay Buccaneers' owner Malcolm Glazer at $1-billion. The island's millionaires are too numerous to mention.

Donnelly said she often wonders why her newspaper, whose readers have a mean household net worth of $11-million, even carries the occasional story about Scripps. Property prices on the island are already stratospheric, with condos starting at $1-million and teardown projects going for $7-million and more. Last year's record residential home sale price was $30.3-million for broadcaster Bud Paxson's oceanfront home.

"Are they going to make house prices on Palm Beach go up?" Donnelly asked of the Scripps influx. "I don't think so."

James Jennings Sheeran, publisher and editor-in-chief of Palm Beach Society magazine, said his well-heeled readers can be divided into two camps when it comes to Scripps' move East.

"You have the preservationists, who hate it and think they'll ultimately ruin Palm Beach, and the aggressive new core of commercialists who love it," Sheeran said recently from his office tucked above Worth Avenue's exclusive retail shops.

"Each year the commercialists win over another yard and the preservationists, whose time is past, just go deeper behind their hedges."

Different worlds

within one county

Scripps may have barely ruffled the genteel surface of the town of Palm Beach, which covers just 3.75 square miles. But its impact is already being felt elsewhere in the sprawling 2,000-square mile county, which is so large the state of Rhode Island could fit inside it twice.

Enticed to expand into Florida with $369-million in state-approved funds, Scripps has chosen a site in the northwest corner of the county, about 20 miles from the bridges to Palm Beach island.

The Scripps property, now a citrus grove and sand pit, is bordered by dirt roads and wildlife preserves. A handwritten "hot lunch" sign is propped in front of a roadside hot-dog wagon. Telephone poles are plastered with signs for septic maintenance and stump removal.

Renee Stark, sales director at the Ibis Golf and Country Club just south of Scripps' chosen site, is giddy at the prospect that well-paid newcomers drawn by Scripps will pour into her project.

The development, with its three golf courses and homes ranging from $250,000 to $2-million, has seen a burst in sales recently. Stark said it was too soon to tell if the pop was due to speculation over Scripps or just the resurgent economy.

But she said Scripps' decision has helped push the boundaries of residential development in Palm Beach County.

"Our location was once iffy," Stark said of the 13-year-old community, which is about two-thirds developed. "It just became ideal."

William Stoutenburgh, who bought a home on an acre and a quarter bordering the Scripps parcel two years ago, wonders if the bump in real estate values will compensate for the traffic that will be attracted to the planned 2,000-acre commercial-residential development. He also worries that bright lights at the project will put an end to his hobby of stargazing.

"Ask me in five years how mad I am," he said.

Stoutenburgh and his wife relocated to the area from Wellington, an upscale residential community to the south with too many rules for their liking. "We couldn't park our motorhome on our lot," he said with disgust. Now his giant RV is in the front yard, nearly dwarfing his home.

The Scripps announcement has already translated into a bonus for one of Stoutenburgh's neighbors who put a vacant lot on the market last month. The property sold in five days for $99,000, nearly 25 percent more than lots had been selling for previously.

That's the kind of windfall Peter Grosso said his customers are hoping for. Grosso and his father own C&P Growers, a landscaping and nursery business with five acres south of Scripps' land. "There probably will be a big increase in traffic and I'm sure my taxes will go up," he said. "But my customers think their big payday is finally going to come."

Grosso won't be too upset if someone offers to buy out his family's land. Two years ago, they bought 26 acres about a half-hour west in Indiantown, making it easy to move the business.

Bill Hall, a broker with Illustrated Properties in Palm Beach County, said Scripps' announcement has so far generated a flurry of interest in commercial parcels, but little action.

"We're getting a lot of inquiries from outside the area, both from people that already do business with Scripps, like Oxford University, to people who want to do business with them," said Hall. "When they say they want property near Scripps, I tell them "You and everyone else.' "

Hall, who sits on the county's land-use advisory board and local planning agency, said Scripps hasn't generated much speculation yet on large commercial lots because the biggest pieces are already under the control of local government agencies.

But he expects homebuilders to continue their development march northward as far as Fort Pierce and west to Indiantown and even Okeechobee, about 50 miles away. With single-family homes starting at about $250,000 in the county _ and $3-million on the island of Palm Beach _ Hall said, "The lower end of the job scale at Scripps can't afford Palm Beach County."

The science of

the social event

All this hubbub over Scripps goes largely unnoticed by the super-affluent in Palm Beach, where the winter social season has shifted into full swing.

In January, there's a gala for arthritis, a ball for cystic fibrosis, benefits for Hospice and the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, and a luncheon for ovarian cancer.

Sheeran, who has been chronicling the island's elite for 14 years through his magazine and books, said outsiders might not appreciate the import of such events. The bejeweled couples skimming the dance floor at the grand old Breakers hotel night after night are simply auditioning for acceptance from their peers, he said. The price of that acceptance: generous donations to everything from animal rescue to eye research.

"We are in the business of fundraising," Sherran said. "We raise $40-million in a six-month social season and probably double that if you consider private donations."

Though some of the island's older social clubs may be off-limits to newcomers from Scripps, Sheeran expects they will be able to buy their way into some level of the social strata.

"Science is really unknown to most of us," he said. "But the superstars will be well accepted."

Sheeran welcomes Scripps for the gravitas it might bring to his winter home. He's still smarting from a recent Vanity Fair article that portrays the tiny island as a playground for a vacuous elite more interested in decorating and dinner seating arrangements than world affairs.

"We're always the focus of superficial attention, which makes us look like all we do is worry about money," he said. "Scripps will make us the focus of serious attention."

_ Kris Hundley can be reached at hundleysptimes.com or (727) 892-2996.

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