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Hillsborough offers enticement for Merck

Published February 22, 2007


TAMPA - With a $28-million vote Wednesday, Hillsborough County commissioners joined the race to bring bioscience companies to Florida.

Commissioners unanimously approved their largest subsidy ever that doesn't involve a sports team, agreeing to give H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute the money for a joint venture with giant drugmaker Merck & Co. Inc. to develop cancer treatments.

Today, the proposal goes to a joint legislative budget committee considering an additional $15-million in state incentives.

With the vote, Hillsborough commissioners follow their counterparts in Palm Beach, Orange and St. Lucie counties, who have in recent months signed multimillion-dollar subsidy deals with firms specializing in medical research. Hillsborough commissioners hope their project, which is comparatively smaller, sparks investment in the Tampa Bay region by other companies while helping advance treatment options for cancer patients.

"This is why I became a county commissioner - the opportunity to participate in activities where you can really make a difference in the lives of individuals," said Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who helped lead the effort to land the Moffitt/Merck collaboration.

Moffitt intends to create a for-profit subsidiary called M2Gen that will study ways to tailor treatment of cancer patients based on the individual characteristics of their tumors, with the goal of developing new drugs. Merck, the world's second-largest pharmaceutical, said it will invest about $95-million in the project.

In return for the subsidies, Moffitt promises to create 165 new jobs paying an average of $80,000, 108 of them in Hillsborough. The jobs would have to be maintained for at least 10 years.

"I think this county just made a statement about where we're are headed," said William Dalton, chief executive officer for Moffitt.

The county will sell bonds to help pay its share, $20-million toward construction of a 50,000-square-foot building and $8-million toward the purchase of 25 acres south of the University of South Florida currently owned by Tampa General Hospital.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush announced the venture late last year before leaving office, calling it "a milestone day for Florida." But its fate has remained uncertain, with some commissioners taking issue with the city of Tampa's subsidy contribution of just $2-million in cash and land.

A member of the legislative budget committee has stalled state consideration of the proposal until the county addresses its concerns.

Hillsborough Commission Chairman Jim Norman sought Wednesday to delay a vote so the city could consider his proposal that Tampa increase its contribution to $7-million but delay the payments until after M2Gen is built. Other commissioners argued that a delay could jeopardize the project and that anything other than a clear vote of support could muddy state approval, though they still got in their digs at the city .

"It's unfortunate that the mayor does not share our vision for attracting this industry to our community," said Commissioner Ken Hagan.

Mayor Pam Iorio has repeatedly voiced her support but has said that the city is not in a position to pay more.

Even the county is getting off easy compared to some other counties. Palm Beach County pledged nearly $200-million to entice Scripps Research Institute, on top of state subsidies. Orlando, Orange County and the state are spending $350-million on an expansion of the Burnham Institute for Medical Research.

Government subsidies will add up to spending $936,000 for every job created by the Scripps deal, according to a state analysis. Subsidies used to entice Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies translate to $508,000 per job.

Local and state government will spend about $263,000 on each of the jobs created through M2Gen.

Hillsborough County economic director Gene Gray told commissioners that his office has been trying to attract the sort of project that can help lure other bioscience companies to Hillsborough without breaking the bank. He said he believes M2Gen fits that charge.

Bill Varian can be reached at 813 226-3387 or

[Last modified February 22, 2007, 06:45:55]

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