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Jackson goes to Tallahassee

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  • | 7:45 a.m. March 18, 2011
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Jackson Labs' quest for $100 million in state funds faces several challenges — including having no business plan for its Sarasota County endeavor yet available to share with key legislators.

It's also getting late in the game according to a key Senate committee chairman and a House subcommittee chairman whose districts could be the Jackson's new location.

That's because Jackson Lab must start over in its request for funds after withdrawing its 2010 application. That application put in motion an initial $50 million worth of state funds as part of a $130 million state incentive package. Now, Jackson's back at the starting line.

Without a business plan to show what taxpayers would receive for their investment, legislators from the region that stands to benefit most are questioning Jackson's strategy.

“What we want is return on our investment,” explains Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, chairwoman of the commerce and tourism committee. Her committee looks at economic development incentives in the budget so she's a key player, and one who's far from on board.

But with a $4 billion state budget gap there may be no state money to invest. Detert also sits on two education budget subcommittees feeling the pain, so economic development's not her only priority.

“Jackson Labs would have to be viable without state funds,” says Detert. There is no money or appetite for this project this year. It is too late in the process. The only way it could happen is if Gov. Scott made it his top priority,” she says.

So far, only Scott's staff has met with Jackson Labs' officials.

“If it happened this year, I'd be stunned,” adds Detert.

On the House side, Rep. Doug Holder, R-Sarasota, chairman of the economic development and tourism subcommittee, shares Detert's concerns on the timing, though he says he would like to see it in Sarasota.

“In order for it to happen this year it would have to be a very, very heavy lift, and get some really special treatment that I don't see coming down the pipeline this year,” says Holder. “It's great for next year.”

Detert compares Jackson's request to the Scripps Research Institute project she helped deliver with former Gov. Jeb Bush in 2003. “They're not Scripps,” she says, referring to the Jupiter-based biomedical research campus now with 350,000 square feet of facilities. “Scripps had a payback schedule.”

But to judge return on investment, legislators and Gov. Rick Scott need to see a business plan. And they've yet to see one according to Detert and Sen. President Pro-tempore Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton.

“If I were going to sit down with the governor, I would have every bullet available,” says Bennett. “They just don't have that.”

A business plan provided to Hillsborough County didn't convince its officials it was worth the investment, according to Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Al Higginbotham. Gene Gray, director of the county's economic development department, says a public record exemption keeps that plan private.

Charles Hewett, Jackson's executive vice president, met with Scott's staff March 14 in Tallahassee. Sarasota County Administrator Jim Ley and David Bullock, the deputy county administrator, were also in town to talk about Jackson Labs that day.

“Chuck Hewett came away saying the meeting was encouraging, but not conclusive,” says Barry Teater, Jackson Labs' director of communications, a day after the meeting.

“We first have to see whether this project aligns with Gov. Scott's vision for economic development before we can go forward,” says Teater, “and that's what were working on right now with his staff. Until we know that, we can't go any further.” Teater says additional meetings with the governor's staff are planned to “... determine whether we can agree on a plan for moving forward.”

Bennett questions Jackson Labs' political strategy. He says it's not involving him and other key legislators with the clock ticking, and it also hasn't put together a strategic lobbying team or economic advisers to help with the business plan.

Says Bennett, who supports the project in concept, but needs more information, says, “The problem is, I don't know if they know what they're doing.”

Bennett also isn't shy about offering the Jackson Labs folks a little free advice: “You'd think they'd want to deal with the same senator who got them the $130 million last year.”


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