Lee County finalizes $5 million grant for VR Laboratories

A company expecting to infuse some $50 million into Lee County’s economy, will get a cash infusion of its own.

Commissioners on Tuesday agreed 4-1 to the terms of a $5 million grant for VR Laboratories, a new biotech venture that wants to locate its headquarters in Lee County.

The company pledged to return the grant back to the county as the new venture becomes successful.

“Taxpayers should look forward to ... having business participate with the community,” said Reginald Steele, VR’s executive chairman. “When we looked at this as a grant we felt, the shareholders of VR, that we should give back something to the community ... other than jobs and salaries that will trickle out.”

VR Laboratories is a proposed botanical pharmaceutical company that, with the grant plus $9 million of its own money, hopes to grow to 200 employees with average salaries of $66,000 in five years, explained Jim Moore, Lee’s economic development director.

They are employing herbal-science botanicals that they believe will set industry standards, Moore said.

The grant will come from a $25 million fund, called Financial Incentives for Recruiting Strategic Targets (FIRST) Initiative, set aside to help diversify the local economy.

The company wants to eventually build a 155,000-square-foot research, development and manufacturing site at the Madden Research Loop at the Southwest Florida International Airport. But for the first couple of years the company will be leasing work space, Moore said.

Not everyone was sure the company would bring the type of success it’s boasting.

Brian Bigelow was the only commissioner to vote against the agreement.

He said someone once told him the county seems to spend a lot of money subsidizing programs for wealthy people.

“I’m starting to think that that was probably true,” Bigelow said. “When you look at our local economy and the folks who are in that 14 to 15 percent unemployment category, the disparity looks even more startling.”

He said he hoped that VR Laboratories and other projects, including the another biotech company Algenol, which also was awarded FIRST grant money, will bring the type of success the county is betting on.

“I will be hoping, praying, that those big ticket items have that trickle down effect,” Bigelow said.

The county last year approved a $10 million grant from the same fund for Algenol, a Bonita Springs-based company whose focus is turning algae into fuel. While the company is headquartered in Bonita Springs, it has offices across the globe.

The company now plans to consolidate its research and development in Lee County and eventually bring about 100 jobs.

That plan didn’t sit well with everyone on the commission last year, and only passed with a 3-2 vote with now chairman Frank Mann worried about the company’s ability to increase local employment.

“This is (property) taxes,” Mann said last year, “our most precious resource. With 15 percent unemployment here in Lee County, it’s critically important we focus on jobs. J-O-B-S. This falls significantly short of the proposals we’ve already accepted.”

Communities across Southwest Florida have been searching for ways to diversify economies slammed by the demolished housing market. Incentives, like FIRST grants, have been one of the tools to draw attention from companies in such industries as biotechnology.

But they haven’t always been successful.

Collier County Commission last week voted to stop all action on a project it has been considering for about a year, trying to entice Maine-based Jackson Laboratory to Collier County.

The nonprofit genetics lab had said it would create nearly 250 jobs over ten years, but it was looking for a $130 million investment from Collier County taxpayers.

That’s something that did not sit well with Collier Commissioner Georgia Hiller.

“I think an affirmative statement needs to be made to the public no more time on the part of government and no more expenditures on the part of government (will be taken),” Hiller said at the Feb. 8 meeting.

For Lee Commissioner Mann, he acknowledged his past hesitation with previous projects looking for FIRST funding, but expressed optimism for VR Laboratories.

“I hope this will be a successful project that will create those 200 jobs,” Mann said.

Connect with Tara E. McLaughlin at www.naplesnews.com/staff/tara-mclaughlin/

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