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Tampa pushed to give more

A county commissioner wants the city to up its subsidy toward Moffitt's newest venture.

Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Jim Norman is making a last-ditch push for Tampa to increase its share of the public subsidy of a proposed new venture for H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute.

Norman spoke with Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio on Tuesday and followed up with a letter asking that the city put $7-million in cash into the deal, instead of the $800,000 it already has pledged. His sweetener: Postpone the contribution for five years, then pay over 10 years in annual installments of $700,000.

That way, Norman said, the city would already be reaping increased property and sales taxes from the 30-acre, 50,000-square-foot project south of the University of South Florida.

"This gives them a substantial cash flow where they can't say the money's not there," he said. "I'm just trying to come up with creative ways to make this work."

Commissioners will consider today their end of the subsidy, providing $20-million in cash and $8-million more for purchasing the property where the project would be built, all of which would be due within 90 days of inking a deal.

If Norman gets his way, the county cash share of the deal will fall to $14-million, offset by the higher city contribution.

The state is considering whether to chip in $15-million.

Moffitt is planning to create a new for-profit venture called M2Gen with pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. Inc. Together, they plan to research ways to tailor cancer treatment to patients based on the distinct genetic characteristics of their tumors.

Merck said it will invest nearly $100-million in a deal that boosters say will dramatically kick-start Hillsborough's efforts to lure companies that specialize in high-paying and clean bioscience work.

But some county commissioners have chafed at the comparatively small commitment by the city to the project - initially $500,000. The city has since raised its stake to $800,000, plus about $1.2-million worth of land it owns next to the proposed development site.

City officials have said they don't have the money to increase Tampa's share substantially and based their contributions on what they deemed a fair share of future tax proceeds from M2Gen.

Iorio maintained Friday that the city has made its best offer.

"This is not a small-scale project," Iorio said.

It's a county and regional economic development project, and therefore the county should take charge of the planning, she said. As such, Iorio said, it's appropriate that the city play only a supportive role.

"I applaud the leadership role the county has shown," she said, adding that she hopes the project is approved today.

Commissioners Ken Hagan and Brian Blair, said they too have some misgivings about the city's share of the subsidy but are anxious to hear the board's discussion.

Commissioner Mark Sharpe, the board's biggest supporter of the project, fretted that differences between the city and the county could threaten the most significant economic development boost for the community in years.

He said the county happens to be in a financial position, because of amassing plentiful reserves, to make the project happen. If the city is not, that is not enough to let it fall through.

"People are looking for leadership," Sharpe said. "Leadership in this case means we're going to step up because we can."

Community supporters of M2Gen, including former Gov. Bob Martinez, were busy making phone calls seeking to shore up support for the project. A sizeable contingent is expected to head to the County Center today.

Moffitt spokeswoman Michelle Foley said Tuesday that the cancer center's agreement with Merck relies on the overall $45-million public commitment.

"If for some reason one party doesn't ante up that amount, we're going to have to go back to the drawing board," she said. "So we hope this can be worked out."

Times staff writer Janet Zink contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or varian@sptimes.com.

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