Retiree Duane Billington fought for 18 months against Jackson Laboratory's plan to expand in Florida, and he was relieved when the proposal was finally withdrawn in the Sunshine State.
The former engineering technician and civic activist from Naples, Fla., became a leader in the opposition to Jackson after "the deal didn't meet my initial smell test. '' The Maine-based institute sought a combined $260 million in state and county subsidies to create 244 jobs.
"We're glad to be rid of them,'' Billington said in a telephone interview this week. "I feel bad for the state of Connecticut if you all have politicians who are swallowing the Jackson line hook, line and sinker.''
After more than two years of negotiations and proposals, Jackson eventually withdrew its application in early June and left Florida. When that happened, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's chief of staff happened to be reading a weekly Maine newspaper about the situation and immediately sensed that Connecticut could seize an opportunity that Florida had passed up.
Malloy sent a contingent north to Bar Harbor, Maine, to negotiate a deal with Jackson, and that deal is scheduled to come to a vote Wednesday in the House of Representatives and the Senate. Malloy is calling for the state to borrow $291 million to construct a new building on 17 acres of state-owned land at the University of Connecticut Health Center campus in Farmington and provide $99 million in research money for Jackson. The nonprofit institute is pledging to create 300 jobs within 10 years and 600 jobs within 20 years, making it slightly larger than the Florida plan in jobs and state subsidies.
But Jackson would not be talking about coming to Connecticut if the proposal had not fallen apart in Florida.
"They couldn't find a home here in Collier County or Sarasota because they don't have a product to deliver,'' said Billington, who lives in the county's best-known city. "Their business is to produce genetically altered mice for other scientists to study and use in experiments. This thing they're going into is a totally new deal for them. They have no expertise. It's an exercise in venture capitalism. It could work, and it might not.''
A leader in genetics research, Jackson is seeking to move into a different field: genomic medicine. The field involves the study of genes and genetic interactions that are "essential to creating new medicines and treatments for some of humankind's worst diseases and conditions,'' according to a 26-page brochure that was distributed to Connecticut legislators.
Mike Hyde, a vice president and fundraiser for Jackson, spent many days in Florida and is familiar with Billington and his criticisms. He says the largest overriding factor in the collapse of the Florida proposal was the deep recession in Florida's economy.
"The opponents were saying what they're saying here — that it's a lot of money,'' Hyde said Tuesday in an interview at the state Capitol. "Last year was tough [economically in Florida]. This year was tougher. They didn't have the money to do the project. The bottom line — headline — is Florida ran out of money.''
Concerning Billington's criticisms, Hyde said: "I'm delighted to be in Connecticut. It's a great state. I really don't have any hard feelings about what happened in Florida. This is here. This is now.''
New Florida Governor
The genesis of Florida's heavy push into bioscience dates to 2003 under then-Gov. Jeb Bush, brother of President George W. Bush. With NASA and aerospace no longer expanding at a rapid clip in Florida, Bush made major moves to diversify the economy and chose bioscience as the path to the state's economic future. Eventually, the state and local governments spent about $2 billion to recruit eight institutes to the state, including the famed Scripps Research Institute from San Diego County. The eight institutes all got their money before Jackson arrived on the scene.
The bioscience push continued under Bush's successor, Charlie Crist, but it stopped as the state continued to run into fiscal troubles under Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who was elected in November 2010. Although Scott never spoke publicly against the project, he declined to meet with Jackson Lab officials, prompting the company to withdraw its proposal. In Florida's complicated system of awarding both state and county money for projects, Jackson ran into problems with local opposition that was spearheaded by activists like Billington.
In Connecticut, many Capitol insiders say the Jackson proposal will be approved because the Democrats control both the House and the Senate by wide margins. House Speaker Chris Donovan, who oversees 99 members in the 151-seat House, favors the proposal, as does Senate President Pro Tempore Donald Williams.
Among Republicans, though, the questions have been mounting as they have learned more about the deal since it was announced by Malloy less than one month ago. Sen. Leonard Suzio, a conservative Republican from Meriden who has become one of the legislature's most outspoken opponents of the deal, said that Jackson pulled out of Florida as the deal was going south.
"It never came to a vote because they could read the tea leaves,'' Suzio said. "Jackson saw they were not getting a warm reception from the governor.''
Despite his harsh criticisms of the deal, Suzio said that he is sympathetic to the idea of creating jobs in Farmington because he worked previously in biotechnology. "I'm not opposed to Jackson,'' he said. "I'm just opposed to the deal.''
Suzio agrees with Billington and other critics in Florida who say that the proposal is risky because it is a new venture for Jackson, which earned more than half of its revenue in Fiscal 2011 from mouse sales and services. The new lab would focus on genomic medicine.
"It has nothing to do with the mice, anyway,'' Suzio said. "They're experts in breeding mice. This is a different field. They don't have 80 years of experience in this like they have in breeding mice.''
Billington said that part of the problem in Florida was that Jackson's current work and its planned future work were so different.
"If you're good at football, does that mean you're going to be a good high-board diver?'' Billington asked. "If you're a good, 315-pound center, are you going to win 'Dancing With The Stars'?''
But Hyde, from Jackson Lab, said he would not attribute the collapse of the proposal in Florida to Jackson's proposed move into a new field of medicine.
"You could probably find 400 different opinions on the project,'' Hyde said. "I think money was at the root of it. It was fundamentally about cost. … If the whole thing happened a year earlier, it would probably be a different story.''
Billington also scoffed at the statements by Jackson that 27 Nobel Prize winners "can be linked to research, resources or genetic principles first developed at JAX,'' the shortened name for the lab that was included in the brochure distributed to Connecticut legislators.
"When you dig in past their smoke and mirrors, the researchers used their mice, and it has nothing to do with Jackson Lab,'' Billington said. "These guys didn't work for Jackson. You can't claim credit for their Nobel Prize.''
Both Suzio and deputy Senate Republican leader Leonard Fasano of North Haven said they want a copy of the memorandum of understanding between the state and Jackson. But the Malloy administration has refused to release the documents, including the letter of intent, because it says the documents contain trade secrets.
"I've got a business guy here who fell off his chair laughing,'' Suzio said of a colleague's reaction about trade secrets. "Why would there be any confidential information in a letter of intent? We're not asking for the disclosure of secret formulas. It's laughable.''
Like Suzio, Fasano had questions about the transaction, but they were answered in writing Tuesday by Timothy F. Bannon, Malloy's chief of staff. More answers are expected Wednesday on follow-up questions posed by Fasano. In written answers, Bannon said that Jackson will have a 99-year lease on 17 acres of state-owned land with the chance to gain ownership if the company meets every state stipulation over the next 20 years. Bannon noted, however, that the final terms of the deal have not yet been negotiated with Jackson.
"Jackson Lab will not be able to refinance nor sell their ownership of the building without the state's approval,'' Bannon wrote in a copy released to The Courant. "There is no ability to change ownership without the state's consent to a new owner and use.''
Malloy himself was negotiating Tuesday with top legislative leaders about the details of a separate, bipartisan jobs package that will be debated Wednesday. Since the differences remain over Jackson, the laboratory was not mentioned during the afternoon session. Malloy said the Connecticut and Florida deals were relatively close in terms of money, but there was one essential difference.
"I think their governor stopped talking,'' Malloy said Tuesday at the Capitol. "They elected a new governor. Listen, that's the difference.''Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun