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The money will go to a university in Oregon to create a research center in Florida.
By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER, Times Staff Writer
Published January 19, 2008
As Florida's public colleges prepare to slash their budgets by the millions yet again, a research university more than 3,000 miles away is celebrating $113-million in incentives from the state and from the Florida Senate president's district.
Gov. Charlie Crist, after consulting with Senate President Ken Pruitt and House Speaker Marco Rubio, earlier this month granted $60-million to lure a research unit from Oregon Health & Science University to the fast-growing biotechnology research cluster on Florida's east coast.
The money comes from the Innovation Incentive Fund, created in 2006 under then-Gov. Jeb Bush to attract companies that work in "innovation and technology development," said Dale Brill, director of the Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development. The city of Port St. Lucie, meanwhile, has pledged $53-million in incentives, according to Oregon Health officials.
The university joins a handful of institutions - Scripps Research Institute, the Burnham Institute for Medical Research, the Stanford Research Institute, the Torrey Pines Research Institute - that have been lured to Florida's treasure coast in recent years with taxpayer dollars.
Oregon Health's endeavor here will be modeled on its 7-year-old Vaccine & Gene Therapy Institute in Beaverton, Ore., where more than a dozen researchers are gaining acclaim for their study of infectious diseases ranging from AIDS to monkeypox.
But critics say the $60-million incentive - roughly the amount Florida lawmakers cut from the 11 state universities' budgets during the special session this past fall - would better benefit one of Florida's three research institutions, like the University of Florida or University of South Florida.
Both have medical schools and are conducting vaccine research, and both are facing additional cuts of as much as $30-million this budget year.
Moreover, it's not the first time since Florida's budget crisis began last year that millions in state money went to a higher education institution outside the public system.
The University of Miami, where Rubio, a Republican, got his law degree, got $80-million in taxpayer dollars for a genomics institute this year. As with Oregon Health, UM's money came from the Innovation Incentive Fund.
"We're going through these very critical decisions - painful decisions - in our public universities, and money is being given to out-of-state institutions," said Carolyn Roberts, chairwoman of the Board of Governors that oversees the 11 public institutions. "All research is valuable and important, but we are at a critical point in our university system.
"We're to the point not only of faculty and personnel layoffs, we're to the point that the budget situation could threaten our most sacred agreement, and that is articulation."
Brill said Florida's public universities are important to the state's future economic success, "which is going to depend on innovations." But that doesn't mean other institutions can't help as well, he said.
"We see this as adding to our research base," Brill said, citing the institute's success in Oregon. "The real strength and attractiveness of this project is the demonstrated return on investment from this group.
State officials anticipate the Oregon vaccine institute, known in Oregon as VGTI, will generate 1,466 jobs over 20 years. The facility and spinoff ventures will produce $4.2-billion in economic activity in Florida, he said.
"So we spent $60-million to get a $4.2-billion return," Brill said.
The institute recently received more than $10-million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to accelerate the pace of HIV vaccine development. Institute researchers also work with Oregon Health's primate research arm, which in 2001 produced the world's first genetically modified nonhuman primate.
No faculty or staff will move from Oregon. Instead, the institute will recruit a new group of scientists and staff.
According to Oregon Health, Florida officials contacted them in September and asked them to consider opening a facility in Florida.
Port St. Lucie is where Pruitt, a Republican, lives, but Brill said Oregon Health chose to locate there because of the proximity to existing biomedical research entities.
Pruitt's office did not respond to an interview request.
But in a video posted on the vaccine institute's Web site, Crist thanks Pruitt for "your leadership and commitment in bringing VGTI to Florida."
"You bring important expertise to Florida's biotech cluster," Crist tells the institute in the video. "You will join some of the most prestigious biomedical institutes in the nation, dare I say the world."
Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 813 226-3403.
[Last modified January 18, 2008, 22:51:40]