WEST PALM BEACH Still bitter about the contract battle with Scripps, county commissioners Tuesday delayed committing $21 million to lure another California-based institute to Palm Beach County until more detailed contract terms can be ironed out.
County commissioners issued a one-week deadline for staff to negotiate with the Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies, Boca Raton city officials and members of the Business Development Board.
Supporters called it the “biggest opportunity since Scripps.” But commissioners expressed concern about making a quick decision, and frustration about the need to spend more of taxpayers’ money to attract biotech companies when they already spent more than $200 million on The Scripps Research Institute.
The $64 million package for Torrey Pines is much smaller than the $600 million package for Scripps. It includes 10 acres of land and 15,000 square feet of temporary space from Boca Raton, $21 million from the county and $32 million from the state.
But like Scripps, Torrey Pines is a nonprofit that relies on grants, causing concern from the county about the institute’s ability to be held liable for meeting job goals in exchange for the taxpayers’ money.
And time is running short.
Institute officials have to decide where they want to locate in the next week to take advantage of $245 million in state money that was set aside for biotech companies. That money is expected to be divided up next month.
Meanwhile, other Florida cities, including Port St. Lucie and Orlando, have offered more money to entice Torrey Pines.
Richard Houghten, the institute’s president, said despite the better offers, he prefers to build in Boca Raton. He also agreed not to entertain proposals from competing communities until the commission meets next Tuesday to decide whether to invest in the project or pass on the deal.
Houghten’s operation in California started with eight employees and has since grown to more than 75 scientists, technicians and administrative staff, according to its Web site. Scripps, the world’s largest private nonprofit biomedical research facility, has a staff of about 2,800.
Here, the plan is to build a 100,000-square-foot facility in Boca Raton, create 174 new positions and relocate 15 positions from its California campus over 10 years. The average salary of those jobs is estimated at $56,600.
If the institute doesn’t meet its job requirements, the building would revert back to county ownership. Some commissioners suggested that the county should be able to have the land, as well, should something go awry.
Commissioner Burt Aaronson, who helped negotiate the contract with Scripps, was skeptical of the proposed deal, particularly how the county’s $21 million amounted to $111,000 per job.
Houghten pointed out that the county’s investment in Scripps amounted to $388,000 per job. “We’re not Scripps,” he said.
Aaronson responded: “We started with Scripps with $388,000 a job because they were the magnet that was going to bring you here for nothing. They were going to bring you here, they were going to bring Burnham or whoever the hell else they were going to bring. They were going to bring everybody here for nothing. Now everybody’s coming here for something.”
Commissioner Warren Newell said the county commission seems to be “turning into a science-funder for the state of Florida.”
Boca Raton Mayor Steven Abrams urged the commission to look beyond the number of jobs that Torrey Pines would bring. He said it’s about spinoff companies that the institute could generate, and securing the planned and much-talked-about biotech cluster in Palm Beach County.
The institute has spun off 10 companies in California, and plans to bring two to Florida, one of which could generate “several hundreds of jobs,” said Kelly Smallridge, president of the county’s business development board.
Representatives from Florida Atlantic University and the business community turned out to show their support for the project.
“With Torrey Pines in the south end, Scripps in the north end, we really have an opportunity to anchor Palm Beach County,” said Bill Wood, president and CEO of the Delray Chamber of Commerce.
County Commissioners Jeff Koons and Karen Marcus were both supportive of the proposal. Koons said the institute would fit well in Boca, and noted the institute’s positive track record.
“These don’t come along very often,” he said.
SOURCE: Palm Beach Post