County to pay for study

The commissioners' decision makes good on a pledge to Moffitt involving a research park.

By BILL VARIAN, Times Staff Writer
Published December 6, 2007

TAMPA - Hillsborough County will spend up to $235,000 to study the feasibility of building a biotech research park in partnership with H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute.

The 6-0 vote by commissioners Wednesday to pay for the study makes good on part of a pledge the county made to Moffitt earlier this year.

County officials said the vote lays the groundwork for something that could reshape Hillsborough's employment opportunities.

"No question, this project and others are going to dramatically affect the job market in this community for generations," said Gene Gray, the county's economic development director.

In February, commissioners agreed to spend up to $28-million to entice Moffitt to build a new, specialized cancer research center known as M2Gen. The project is a partnership with drugmaker Merck & Co. Inc. aimed at developing ways to tailor treatment of cancer patients.

The state is contributing $15-million toward building the 50,000-square-foot M2Gen headquarters near the University of South Florida, and the city of Tampa is contributing another $2-million in cash and land.

That has been by far the largest county public subsidy of an economic development venture that doesn't involve a sports team. But Moffitt made clear it intends to explore building an even larger biotech research park, details of which have not been publicly disclosed.

"We had tremendous success with the first phase," said Commissioner Mark Sharpe of M2Gen, which recently broke ground. "We always knew the biggest challenge would be the second phase."

Pasco County initially offered cash and land for both projects. Hillsborough County persuaded Moffitt to consider building the research park in its home county with the pledge to pay for a feasibility study.

The study will attempt to measure the interest of biotech firms in locating in Hillsborough County, and their willingness to spend their own money on land and construction to do so.

"We want to limit the county's exposure on this," said county Debt Management Director Mike Merrill.

The county worked with one of its financial advisors, Public Financial Management to seek bids for a subcontractor to do the study. Ultimately Merrill recommended the highest cost bidder by far - Columbus, Ohio's Battelle Memorial Institute - of three companies that submitted offers. The next lowest bidder offered to do the work for $60,000. The third bid was open-ended.

Merrill said Battelle, a multinational research and development firm, offers the most experience, and he said its cost is in keeping with other consultants the county has hired.

Commissioners didn't blanch at that so much. However, Commissioner Jim Norman expressed hope that the county secure pledges of financial support from Tampa and the state.

He said he doesn't want the project to go too far without assurances that Hillsborough taxpayers won't foot all of the bill. So the board voted 6-0 to have its staff gauge the willingness of other governments to participate.

"If you let this thing go so far down the track again, we're going to be the cash cow," Norman said.

In other action:

- Commissioners are seeking recommendations from staff on how they can better ensure that investments of tax money not lose value. The move comes on news that a state investment pool where local governments park tax collections is in danger of losing value.

- Commissioners directed the county staff to reach out to garbage haulers to see if there's a way to solve an impasse over who is allowed to pick up construction debris from newly built home sites.

The three companies the county uses to pick up household garbage say they have exclusive rights to the construction debris slice of the waste business. In letters from their lawyers, the companies have suggested that they may need to raise residential rates to compensate for the county allowing other companies to haul construction debris.

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or 813 226-3387.