Biotech parks' hiring slow for local residents

When the University of Maryland, Baltimore picked the southern edge of Poppleton as the home for its new biotechnology-focused business park, there was a lot of talk about the entry-level work it would bring to the city's west side.

Local politicians said the park would be a major source of job growth for the region and help revitalize the community, blighted at times by drugs and crime. And school officials promised training programs to help residents fill up to one-third of the positions created.

Today, more than a year after the first of 10 planned BioPark buildings opened on West Baltimore Street, just four of its 200 workers live within walking distance, and even fewer west-side residents have been tapped for training.

States increasingly are latching onto the idea that biotech parks can provide not only high-paying professional jobs but also careers for lower-skilled workers through associated technician and support positions. But there are several challenges: Residents need training to work in laboratories, there are relatively few entry-level jobs available and the industry has a predilection toward hiring people with advanced degrees.

Without significant funding to help overcome those hurdles through regional programs, "you're fighting an uphill battle," said Richard B. Clinch, director of economic research at the University of Baltimore's Jacob France Institute."

In Maryland, considered home to one of the world's top biotech centers, two such parks are being developed simultaneously on opposite sides of Baltimore.

Across town from the UMB park, on the city's east side, where the second biotechnology business park is under construction, roughly 60 people have graduated from various skills programs, and 25 of them have jobs. The first biotech business building is scheduled to open there in mid-2008.

"I think the source of funds is the differential, here," said Jane M. Shaab, assistant vice president for economic development at UMB and point person for communication between Poppleton residents and the west-side BioPark, which thus far is home to about a dozen companies, including a clinical trial provider and businesses developing treatments for cancer and other diseases.

While both parks have been promoted as neighborhood rebuilders and a strong source of entry-level work for their respective city residents, the east-side park near the Johns Hopkins University medical complex is a city project, with more than $75 million in city, state and federal funds for capital needs in addition to private investments. It also has the support of at least a dozen major foundations.

The west-side Poppleton park, expected to be complete in the next decade, is a university project with significantly less public backing, about $70,000 worth.

"The east side has millions of dollars in resources that the west side just doesn't have," said Tanya Terrell, president and chief executive of Empower Baltimore Management Corp., which has funded training on behalf of both parks.

The East Baltimore Life Sciences and Technology Park under way near Hopkins was announced about five years ago. It is expected to span 80 acres, include new mixed-income housing and promises as many as 6,000 jobs for all skill levels, from high school graduates on up. It is explicitly designed to help revamp the city's east side by capitalizing on the state's resources and has a nonprofit organization - East Baltimore Development Inc., or EBDI - dedicated to making it work.

The group has arranged for training in construction through one program and lab skills through another, the BioTechnical Institute of Maryland, a non-profit founded in 1998 to connect city workers with biotechnology jobs.

"We really focused a great deal of time and effort to identify these types of entry-level positions and make sure that local residents are connected to these opportunities," said Jack Shannon, EBDI's president and chief executive. "We've got some more work to do. I really want to see this happen."

His group has tied jobs to certain funding it receives, promising positions for residents. The west-side UMB BioPark, expected to house about 2,500 employees, has not. Though representatives there have said as many as a third of the park's jobs could go to Poppleton residents, they've never given any guarantees.

The UMB park, announced in 2002, began as a way to boost the university's research reputation. Still, the city gave the school a break on its initial 4.7 acres of Poppleton, leasing it to them for $1. Another such deal is in the works for a parcel of land, less than an acre, to the south of the BioPark, Shaab said yesterday.

To help develop those jobs for residents, UMB staffers were able to snag a $70,000 commitment from Terrell's group, Empower Baltimore, to send a total of 10 Poppleton-area residents to the BioTechnical Institute. But only one qualified candidate came forward in time for the class, which kicked off in October and is mostly populated by East Baltimoreans.

Jacqueline Taylor, a 32-year-old mother of three, was the sole Poppleton resident to show up for a biotech skills class one rainy Friday night. She brought her dinner with her, set up in the back of the room and trained her eyes on the professor, intent on getting what she came for: "a sound career."

"[The BioPark is] going to enable me financially to be able to support my children. That's one of my dreams," said Taylor, who lives in the same Poppleton apartment she rented back when she was 21 and not yet a mother.

James L. Hughes, vice president of research and development at UMB, said the BioPark is considering paying for training through its Community Fund, financed by a 25-cent surcharge that tenants pay for every square foot that is leased.

The money is set aside for Poppleton, groups from which can apply for it annually. This year, the Poppleton Village Center got the available $30,000 by promising to teach residents interviewing skills, holding dress-for-success sessions and tutoring students in math and computer skills.

Though the Village Center was once well-funded by Terrell's Empower Baltimore Management Corp., that money dried up in late 2004 along with most of the center's job-development programs. Thus, much of the BioPark grant was used to "retool" the center's database, bring materials up to date and assess students.

"We anticipate that we are going to be full throttle before the next phase of development hits," said Doris Hall, past president of the Poppleton Village Center and current executive secretary of the board. The second BioPark building is under construction and slated to open next summer.

The center, which is open most days "by appointment only," plans to apply for next year's BioPark fund as well, Hall said.

Poppleton residents have praised the park for cleaning up neighborhood streets, driving drug dealers to the area's edges and the added university police patrolling the area.

And economists say the park can't help but do well.

"If you build these parks, they're going to be successful," said economist Clinch.

The west side will likely be more successful in the near term, in fact, Clinch said, because of its location near Interstate 95 and UMB's aggressive attitude toward "growing business relations."

But, he added, a significant training investment will be needed to fill the jobs with city residents, otherwise "they're going to be filled by people who commute in from Columbia or Arbutus."

tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

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