The University of Maryland, Baltimore begins works today on the first phase of its $300 million UMB BioPark, the first of two major research parks that experts say are the key to Baltimore's dream of becoming an international leader in the bioscience industry.
The UMB project, on the city's west side, is the smaller of two projects flanking downtown. The second is a much larger development planned near the Johns Hopkins medical campus on the east side.
"These two biotechnology parks are more important to Baltimore's economic future than practically anything since the Inner Harbor," said Anirban Basu, chairman and chief executive of Optimal Solutions Group, an economic and policy consulting firm in Baltimore.
"These biotech parks should result in a leveraging of Baltimore's dominant position in institutional medicine and create a host of private sector companies that over the next two decades has the potential to facilitate tax-base growth, job-growth and personal-income growth. This is tremendously good news."
With a roster of just over 300 biotech firms, two research-oriented medical schools and a number of key federal laboratories, Maryland already boasts one of the strongest concentrations of biotechnology know-how in the country, experts say. But virtually all of the private-sector success stories are situated outside the city - despite the presence of Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
Though product cycles in the biotechnology arena are measured in years - not months, as in the computer-technology sector - economists say biotech is worth the longer wait because of the potential for a huge payoff in job growth and the corporate successes stemming from blockbuster products.
The $800 million east-side project would involve a widespread redevelopment of the neighborhoods surrounding the Johns Hopkins medical campus. Consisting of a research park and complementary businesses, that project of about 2 million square feet is forecast to create as many as 8,000 jobs and take about a decade to complete. Demolition of the first properties took place in November.
The faster-track UMB BioPark, by contrast, is a more concentrated facility with more focused plans, and will be under construction as of this morning.
The 800,000-square-foot project is to be built adjacent to the University of Maryland, Baltimore campus. Plans call for construction of seven buildings and two parking garages on two tracts along the 800 and 900 blocks of W. Baltimore St., one of which the university would have to acquire, spokesman Ed Fishel said last night.
The economic impact would be huge, said Richard P. Clinch, director of economic research at the University of Baltimore, who studied the UMB BioPark project under contract with the developers. The project's direct impact would consist of about $290 million in economic activity and 3,000 jobs, about 37 percent of which would be open to lower-skilled workers.
"The project ... would be very good for the city" and for lower-skilled workers, Clinch said his research found.
Today's groundbreaking is for the first building, a six-story facility with 120,000 square feet of office and laboratory space, that is expected to be finished and ready for leasing by late this year or early next year, said James L. Hughes. As vice president for research and development at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, he has taken one of the school's two point positions on the project.
Plans call for the first building to be divided up two ways. The university will take the bottom three floors - leasing some of that out as incubator space for emerging biotechnology companies - while the development team headed by locally based Townsend Capital LLC will lease out the top three floors.
There are already 14 prospective tenants, even though the official marketing efforts have yet to begin, according to Hughes.
Two of those prospects are in advanced negotiations, Hughes said. One is a financial services firm whose chief business is providing financing to biotechnology companies, while the second is a bioscience firm, Hughes said, though he declined to identify the firms by name.
A third prospect - a New York bioscience company - has identified UMB BioPark as a short-list candidate along with locations in Pennsylvania and its home state, according to Hughes.
"We feel very good about this," Hughes said.