In this issue, we report on five big new construction projects—great news for the region and welcome signs that our economy is turning around. Interestingly, all but one of these projects have been funded in part with public money.
Public financing is also evident in our "Pedestrian Matters" story (page 22). A new study reveals the 10 places that attract the most pedestrian traffic in downtown Sarasota. Five of those destinations—Bayfront Park, Whole Foods, SCAT transfer station, the Ringling Bridge and Selby Library—were created with some public dollars. Imagine how empty downtown Sarasota would be without any of these projects.
And that brings me to Jackson Lab, which has selected Sarasota County to create a new personalized medicine institute. The county is estimating that this could bring 2,200 jobs and $600 million in economic activity by 2030. The hitch? Jackson Lab, which is a nonprofit, is asking for a whopping $300 million: $100 million from the state, $100 million from county taxpayers and $100 million from private sources, such as charitable foundations.
As I write this, Jackson Lab officials are in Tallahassee trying to win Gov. Rick Scott’s support. That’s iffy. Scott has pledged to support economic development and new job creation, but with Florida facing a $3.74 billion budget shortfall, plus Scott’s free-market bent, which has made him such a hero in the Tea Party, he may hesitate to pledge $100 million to this project. And even if Scott gives his blessing, Sarasota County taxpayers then must approve a $100 million bond.
I’m skeptical when it comes to the promises of jobs, economic multipliers and game-changing events. And yet, Jackson Lab could be worth the risk. Jackson is a long-established and financially sound research institute, not a risky, flash-in-the-pan enterprise. This project already has serious partners in the region, with Sarasota Memorial Hospital, Gulf Coast Community Foundation and USF all offering solid support. We also have an older population that is tailor-made for the type of research Jackson wants to conduct. And perhaps most important of all, this project is not about real estate and construction, those once solid but now faltering foundations of the region’s economy. Instead, it would expand and help grow one of our fastest-growing and most promising economic sectors—healthcare and medicine.
We need to see Jackson’s full proposal, including the number of jobs they believe they will create, the amount of their own funds they are investing, and their commitment to the region, should their revenue projections fall short of their estimates.
But this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Sarasota. To dismiss it because of a philosophy that taxpayers should not be involved in encouraging economic development issues is short-sighted. Public dollars play an important role in economic growth and can be a wise and profitable investment in the region’s future.