“On all the projects, whether it’s Jackson Lab or high speed (rail), we’re looking at what the return is for taxpayers,’’ Rick Scott said at a recent Naples event. “In this case, we’re looking at all the proposals that are going around that people want to spend money on and saying ‘Is this good for taxpayers?’ If it’s good for taxpayers, it’s going to happen. If it’s not good for taxpayers, I won’t support it.”
AVE MARIA — The contentious Jackson Lab project may face its death if Gov.-elect Rick Scott shuts the door to state funding.
If not, the project that’s been billed as a lifeline to economic development locally but regarded as corporate welfare by others likely will linger in the courts.
That’s what most Collier County commissioners expect in 2011 for the project that’s been one of the most talked about and debated local issues in the public and private domain for a good part of 2010.
“I think it depends entirely upon the state and Gov. Scott and if that fails, then there probably won’t be anything after that,” Commission Chairman Fred Coyle said about the coming year. “Even if the state wants to move forward, the bond validation process is likely to take some time.”
Coyle, who has been spearheading county government’s efforts to bring the Maine-based genetics research institute to Ave Maria, said there are three hurdles that will make or break the proposed project. They are Scott, bond financing and the state Legislature.
The project, unveiled to residents this past spring, calls for spending $130 million in local tax dollars to build and equip a 165,000-square-foot research center for the nonproft Jackson in the developing field of personalized medicine. The idea is for county government to lease the building to Jackson in exchange for creating 244 jobs over 10 years.
The bigger idea is that Jackson would serve as an anchor to attract other research interests, commercial businesses and educational programs so a larger biomedical village gets established and thousands of jobs get created over 20 years.
Scott hasn’t definitively stated his position on the project. Jackson’s application to state economic development agencies for first-year funding of $50 million, approved by the state Legislative this past spring but not released, is in limbo until Scott’s administration gets in place. Ultimately, the governor has veto power over spending measures coming out of the state Legislature. The original plan calls for the state to match the local funding.
“On all the projects, whether it’s Jackson Lab or high speed (rail), we’re looking at what the return is for taxpayers,’’ Scott said at a recent Naples event. “Everything, we’re going to look at. We’re going to be very methodical, just like in business. In business, my job was to represent shareholders. I made sure that shareholders got a return. In this case, we’re looking at all the proposals that are going around that people want to spend money on and saying ‘Is this good for taxpayers?’ If it’s good for taxpayers, it’s going to happen. If it’s not good for taxpayers, I won’t support it.”
If Collier leaders and residents are still in wait mode by late February for the governor to decide, then a Feb. 21 court date is expected to be next in line for helping determine the project’s fate.
What the judge must decide
Does the Jackson Laboratory project serve a valid and paramount public purpose to the county and its citizens or does issuing $130 million in bonds provide a heftier benefit to the Maine-based lab?
Collier Circuit Judge Hugh Hayes is expected to conduct a hearing and rule whether the project meets a “valid public purpose” test to justify issuing bonds up to $130 million to finance the local expense The benefit to the public would have to outweigh the gains for the nonprofit genetics research institute.
Coyle said if Jackson doesn’t provide the county with “enough information to substantiate a public purpose” and the court says the project doesn’t warrant bond financing, it may not move forward.
At the same time, the commission and its citizen-based Productivity Committee has previously explored other funding options not tied to bond financing.
Likewise the county could appeal a ruling if it doesn’t favor bond financing or Naples-based Arthrex Inc. could appeal if the ruling supports bond financing. Arthrex, which makes devices used by orthopedic surgeons, has filed lawsuits to stop the local expenditure without a voter referendum and to stop state funding.
If Scott supports the project and bond financing is possible, Coyle said the third hurdle is getting the Legislature to provide the state funding to match the local tax dollars. Coyle said that has to happen before Collier County could commit any money.
“It was never possible for us to do this with the state partialing out the funding,” Coyle said, referring to the first-year pledge and not a full $130-million match.
One of a series of stories looking ahead at issues expected to be in the news in 2011.
Last year’s state pledge of $50 million is set to revert to the state’s general budget on March 1 if there is no action by county government.
State Sen. Garret Richter, R-Naples, earlier said he would be willing to file a legislative bill to extend the deadline.
What’s the chances of all three hurdles working out in favor of the project?
“Well below 50 percent,” Coyle said.
Commissioner Tom Henning, who has been critical of the project and called for it to be dropped, agreed the ball is in Scott’s court.
“What’s next is Gov. Rick Scott turning down the funds,” Henning said, adding he doesn’t know if that would mean the end to the project. “I have no idea. I don’t see Collier County funding it.”
Even if Scott were to approve state funding, Henning still doesn’t see county government funding it.
He expects the project to spend a lot of time in court, taking into account Arthrex’s litigation, along with a lawsuit filed by three local residents, and whatever other legal action that could arise in 2011
Commissioner Georgia Hiller, newly elected in November and having participated in one commission meeting before the holiday break, joins Henning in wanting a voter referendum and questioning the merits of the project against the huge local expense.
Hiller concurs that how Scott weighs in is the next issue, as well Jackson’s application to state economic development agencies for state funding.
“If Gov. Scott rejects public funding of Jackson, then the county should do the same,” Hiller said in an e-mail response. “If Gov. Scott approves public funding of Jackson, the county needs to do its own due diligence using independent experts, and, if further action is warranted, put the question of funding to referendum.”
Beyond that, Hiller said the project could still be doable if Jackson officials agree to fully repay public funds loaned in a reasonable time and on reasonable terms. The project should be financed by an economic development bond that Jackson repays, similar to its arrangement in California for its facility for shipping research mice and in Maine at its home base, Hiller said.
Commissioner Jim Coletta said it is interesting that people are trying to claim knowledge about Scott’s position.
“Rick Scott is still an unknown — Rick Scott and two different agencies at the state,” Coletta said, referring to Enterprise Florida where Jackson’s application for state funding has been stalled. Once that review is done, the application would go to the Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development.
Coletta said the county is taking the right step with the bond validation hearing to get that question addressed. He has no qualms with critics scrutinizing the project, even though he feels it would be a game-changer for the community.
“Oversight is a good thing. I’m not upset about this at all. It needs to go through a cleansing process,” he said. “If (this project) happens, this would be the single biggest thing to happen to Collier in its history.”
Commissioner Donna Fiala couldn’t be reached for comment.
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Reporting from Bar Harbor, Maine:
BLOGS/COLUMNS - JACKSON LAB
Wolf pack circling, fighting for taxpayer’s bones Political Point of View by Collier Democrats
Will elections be a referendum on Jackson Lab? The Residents' Corner by Dave Trecker
Where does the Naples Tea Party stand on Jackson Labs? Naples Tea Party
The Jackson Labs question made simple - sort of Brent Batten
Lead, follow or get out of the way Fred Coyle / Collier County Commissioner, District 4
A big gamble on a lots of uncertainty Dave Trecker / Pelican Bay
Questions, answers on the proposed Jackson Laboratory/Florida Tammie Nemecek / President, Economic Development Council of Collier County
The Scientific Reality of Jackson Lab The Residents' Corner by Dave Trecker
Thoughts on Jackson Lab Political Point of View by Collier Democrats
Jackson labs business plan a work in progress Brent Batten
Uncertain predictions, questions cloud Jackson Lab proposal Reinhold Schmieding / Naples / President and founder, Arthrex Inc.
Jackson Laboratory: Keep Expectations in check The Residents' Corner by Dave Trecker
In hard times, Collier should help residents, not Jackson Lab Peter Gaddy / President, Golden Gates Estates Area Civic Association
Principals and practicalities of Jackson Lab subsidy don’t add up Guest commentary by Pelican Bay resident Jack Chandler
Jackson Laboratory and Collier County ... what comes next? Fred Coyle / Chairman, Collier County Commission
Jackson Lab a meeting of mice and men Brent Batten