Guest commentary: A wake-up call and Jackson Lab

The Collier County Commission and the Economic Development Council need a wake-up call. Research projects are not a solution to the problem of job creation.

The proposed Jackson Laboratory project is not self-supporting. It is dependent on public and philanthropic funding. It is not a business or industrial undertaking. It makes no money. It pays no taxes. It is not job-intensive and it is too expensive for our county and state. It will require public support for the rest of its life.

The costs required for start-up and continued operation are excessive in terms of the benefits speculated upon by its local advocates. This non-profit operation needs to be entirely funded with donations and tax money. How much? $260 million, plus $500 million more in additional funding. Tangible spinoffs into personal medicine are uncertain. Even then, the payoff is small.

“Jobs’’ is the name of the game. But these will not be created in sufficient amount unless others follow Jackson to create an economic engine, a synergistic concentration of industries in Collier County. This cluster mechanism is the project’s conceptual weakness — its vulnerable Achilles heel. The figure currently floated by a recently hired Washington consultant is 11,000 extra jobs. This far-out number seems hastily tossed into the hopper to excite our hopes, but is unreliable as a hard planning figure, certainly not one to support a commitment of $260 million.

Jackson’s ability to attract others cannot be demonstrated by its operations in Maine or California. This creates a high-risk situation for us. Public resources, however obtained, need low-risk operations so that we will not be left some day with an abandoned facility, holding a sack of empty promises, like hicks out in the sticks. You don’t gamble with tax dollars.

Jeff Lytle’s interviews with Collier Commissioner Fred Coyle and the COO of Jackson Laboratory show just how illusory the cluster idea is at present. Why would others make a commitment to an infant project in our undeveloped neck of the woods? Florida already has three extensive biomedical parks, established scientific communities with extensive infrastructure. One is next door in Palm Beach County.

Jackson’s sole objective is to produce scientific knowledge. They have been forthright about these intentions and capabilities. Local boosterism and political hubris disguise the real problems. These conclusions were reached after studying available information, and evaluating it in terms of my own experience with business ventures on both sides of the ocean.

In the course of establishing a manufacturing plant in Ireland, I got to know the Irish Development Agency, one of the best in its field. They were professional, and politics were absent. Our locals could learn much from them in the way projects are generated and processed. In addition to my dealings with them as project manager or entrepreneur, I had contact with startups as president of a chamber of commerce. Many ventures came and went. The failures were mostly due to faulty planning and too much wishful thinking.

Before approving a business plan the IDA asked, “How much are you investing up front? What is the dependability of your revenue sources and projections, how resistant is this revenue to changes in business and economic cycles?” They also wanted hard data on the 120 jobs we would create, and the reliability of our technology. There was little wiggle room for error. Our application had to stand on its own merits, without regard to other enterprises. Our financial plan had to document the sources of our equity capital and bank loans. Only when all was tied into a viable package did we receive an offer of incentives from the IDA. The cost per job was only a slight fraction of the estimated $1.5 million required for Jackson’s research project.

We need to rethink our development program, tailor it with a better cost/benefit profile. Certainly, in this big country of ours with all its breaking technology, there are profit-making industries that can be identified and attracted. With incentives sensibly scaled to give us the type and number of jobs we need, our authorities can pursue their responsibilities more effectively.

Let good sense save us from further hype and controversy as we remain on the path of attracting private productive enterprise to help grow our economy.

The Jackson initiative gives little and asks too much. There is still time for the commission and the EDC to suspend this ill-advised project gracefully.

H.C. Klingman is retired from a long career in International business. Beginning in export marketing with the Pillsbury, he became director of the New York Port Authority’s office in Europe developing functional participation in the World Trade Center. He was project manager, partner and director of Irish Polysacks Ltd., established in Ireland, and president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Switzerland, before forming his own company, Tricon Inc.

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