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Reporting from Bar Harbor, Maine:
COLLIER COUNTY — There will be no emergency Board of County Commissioners meeting Friday because the Jackson Laboratory project has been steadily moving forward, Commission Chairman Fred Coyle said Tuesday.
Delays that led to the Maine-based lab being unable to complete its state Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development application by Jan. 4 could benefit Collier County, according to Coyle, who suggested the Legislature next year could approve more funding, a larger match, for the lab to reduce the risk to the county.
“I don’t know if Jackson Lab is a good deal yet, but I’d like to perform responsibly,” Coyle said. “...It’s not a done-deal. There’s no way the Board of County Commissioners will vote to get this project approved without answering the questions we’ve asked.”
The application process, litigation and court hearings, he said, will provide the county and residents with needed information to determine if it’s a viable project. He noted Collier isn’t required to go through the bond validation process, but it would expedite the process.
Even if it doesn’t lead to the lab locating here, he said, it will provide information needed to diversify the county and improve its economy.
On Monday, Commissioner Tom Henning, who opposes the project, asked Coyle or a majority of commissioners to call an emergency meeting, citing the lab’s failure to complete its application. The newest commissioner, Georgia Hiller, joined the opposition, likening Collier’s economy to a “boat with a hole.”
“It doesn’t do us good to go outside our market and diversify when businesses here in the county are failing,” Hiller said. “It makes absolutely no sense for us to allow existing companies to fail and at the same time turn around and recruit a business that has no track record of attracting other businesses.”
Calling that a “bunch of bunk,” Coyle pointed to communities such as Montgomery County, Md., that bolstered economies by creating scientific business clusters. Over 70 years, he said, Collier has grown through tourism, construction, real estate and agriculture, but they’re more affected by economic downturns.
“We need a vibrant economy that isn’t as affected by recession, so we need to diversify. We need to jump start it in some way,” he said, blaming some opposition on the national outcry over politicians and the economy.
“The people who are talking the loudest about transparency don’t want us to get all the information and complete the process. Now why is that?” he asked, referring to residents questioning commissioners. “We just ask people to let us do our jobs.”
The lab has proposed a 165,000-square-foot research building in eastern Collier that would create 200 jobs, with a future medical park potentially creating thousands more over a 20-year buildout. A rezoning hearing is set for Tuesday.
The project, set for Oil Well Road near Ave Maria University, already has attracted Athleticode Inc. of California, which is partnering with the lab to explore the genetic basis of athletic injuries. The University of South Florida at Tampa, Edison State College and Florida Gulf Coast University also have signed letters of intent.
Lab officials blame Congress for the delay in the application, noting state funding was contingent upon how much Medicaid funding Florida would receive. Congress approved $700 million in enhanced Medicaid payments before the Labor Day recess.
Since then, according to Chuck Hewett, Jackson’s executive vice president and CEO, discussions with Economic Florida Inc. are ongoing, but there’ still no final agreement and a final application hasn’t been submitted to state economic officials.
When the Legislature approved $50 million in first-year funding, Collier was to get 120 days to come up with a local funding match and a March 1 deadline to begin construction or the state money is forfeited. Coyle, however, maintains construction began earlier, when digging on a lake began and fill being used for Oil Well Road.
The delay could still jeopardize the project because Governor-elect Rick Scott of Naples, a former CEO of the country’s largest for-profit hospital chain, Columbia/HCA, considers it a bad deal for taxpayers. Outgoing Gov. Charlie Crist supported it.
Mike Hyde, the lab’s vice president for advancement, agreed the change in state administration has caused setbacks.
“The turmoil at the state level has more or less brought an effective halt to the project,” Hyde said, adding Scott is expected to appoint a new administration for the development office. “It’s clear there’s a new administration and there will be a new round of discussions.”
He declined to detail the holdup with EFI, but added, “There’s still a lot of talking to be done.”
Arthrex, which makes biomedical devices, has sued to challenge the constitutionality of proposed state funding and citizens also have sued. Although the process isn’t subject to state open records laws, Coyle noted Collier has been open and more will be disclosed, especially at court hearings. He provided letters he’d sent Hewett and Hart, seeking details and outlining the county’s stance.
Among state officials, one letter shows, it’s called “Project Peet.”
“It’s always been the practice in economic development circles to have a code name to protect the anonymity of organizations so they don’t say ... who the prospective client will be,” Hyde said, adding that state officials came up with the name two years ago while drinking Peet’s Coffee and discussing the project with lab officials.