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If Fla. gets lab, who gets the jobs?

State lawmakers work out details of the multimillion-dollar deal to land Scripps Research Institute.

Published October 17, 2003

If Florida gives the Scripps Research Institute $310-million to open a campus in Palm Beach County, should Florida residents get first crack at the job openings there?

Given that salaries at the biotech center would range from an average of $40,000 for a research associate to $175,000 for a full professor, it's no minor question.

It's also one of several issues Gov. Jeb Bush and state lawmakers are tussling over as next week's special legislative session on the Scripps proposal nears.

At times Thursday, it was hard to separate the rhetoric of polite agreement - nobody wants to scare Scripps off - with the reality of legislative fine print. On the hiring issue, Senate President Jim King, D-Jacksonville, said in an interview that the Senate's version of the Scripps bill would require the group to give Floridians "preferential treatment" for all but the highest-level jobs.

Bush used similar, but not identical, language in a letter Thursday to King. "We anticipate that Florida residency would be an additional asset for any potential hire at any level, and we would not be opposed to some form of legislative language articulating that preference," he wrote.

Scripps executives said earlier in the week that the biomedical think tank from San Diego couldn't guarantee jobs for Floridians because its goal was to attract the best scientific talent available anywhere. The state would nevertheless benefit from the blossoming of biomedical businesses, and jobs, that would cluster around the new facility.

A site for the new campus was revealed Thursday, when Scripps chose to build on what is now a 1,920-acre citrus grove in unincorporated Palm Beach County. The site was selected over several other options nearby.

Under the land deal, Palm Beach County will pay Lantana Farm Associates Inc. of Lake Worth $30,000 per acre, or $57.6-million, county administrator Bob Weisman said. Scripps will occupy just 100 acres of the tract. The remainder would be set aside for biotech companies, universities, venture capitalists and others that seek to do business with Scripps and for water-treatment facilities and other infrastructure.

Allen Zech, head of the agricultural section at the Palm Beach County property appraiser's office, said there is no easy way to tell whether the county got a good price for the land. Few tracts of that size, type and location have been sold in recent years.

In other developments Thursday, Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, said he has asked an independent economist to review the Bush administration's claim that a Scripps deal would directly or indirectly create 50,000 new jobs in Palm Beach County by 2019. That estimate, which administration officials describe as conservative, was derived by Tony Villamil and Robert Cruz of the Washington Economics Group of Coral Gables. Villamil is chief of Bush's council of economic advisers and his former director of trade, tourism and economic development.

"Is it conservative, or highly speculative?" Gelber said in an interview. "Euphoria is a wonderful thing, but you never want to base a purchase on it."

Also Thursday, the Miami Herald reported that C. David Brown II, chairman of Orlando's Broad & Cassell law firm, was the person who first suggested last spring that Bush approach Scripps about a deal. The newspaper said the Bush administration has now tapped Broad & Cassell to handle its negotiations with Scripps. A Broad & Cassell spokeswoman said Brown was not immediately available for comment.

Bush's letter to King was a response to a detailed list of questions King submitted earlier this week.

Asked whether Scripps' presence would vacuum research dollars away from Florida's universities, Bush said absolutely not. Scripps would help state schools, he said, by giving them access to its high-tech drug-treatment lab, forming joint degree programs and giving joint appointments to university researchers, and enhance their fundraising ability by lending a patina of excellence to their work. Some universities, the letter added, might want to open satellite campuses next door to Scripps.

Accountability won't be a problem, Bush argued. As a recipient of federal grants, Scripps is used to reporting its finances in detail. If it doesn't hire the numbers it is supposed to within a given year, it will repay Florida a proportionate amount. Nor will it skip to another state; the Bush administration will ask Scripps to promise not to expand elsewhere in North America, except California, before 2011.

As for sharing the wealth, Bush wrote that Scripps would, beginning in 2011, give Florida a portion of its licensing fees and of money it gets by selling naming rights to buildings and laboratories.

Is the $310-million in federal aid best spent on the Scripps biotech project, rather than on education, transportation or other needs?

No question about it, Bush wrote.

"Thank goodness we are in a position in Florida where we can use one-time dollars to invest in our economy," he said, "rather than being in the unfortunate position facing many other states where they will use their one-time federal monies as a bandage to keep services afloat ... or perhaps to reduce their budget deficits."

- Times reporter Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Scott Barancik can be reached at barancik@sptimes or 727 893-8751.

[Last modified October 17, 2003, 01:48:36]

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