Chamber President Sorry Jackson Left Florida

Florida's loss is Connecticut's gain.

The president of the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce feels that way as the Connecticut state legislature has approved Jackson Laboratory's plan to create 300 jobs over the next 10 years in return for $291 million in state funds.

If Jackson hits its job goals, it would receive a free, $144 million building on 17 acres of state-owned land in Farmington that would be filled with $47 million in scientific and high-speed computer equipment.

But down in Naples, local chamber president Michael Reagen says the business community - including 1,800 chamber members who employ 60,000 workers - was disappointed when Jackson withdrew its plans and left Florida earlier this year.

"The notion of having world-class scientists who could come here was enormously exciting,'' Reagan told Capitol Watch in a telephone interview. "We were disappointed.''

While opponents charged that the Jackson proposal failed because the nonprofit institute had no clear business plan, Reagan said the institute got caught up in a political and economic maelstrom that brought the project down.

"At the local level, the politics became toxic,'' Reagen said. "The Tea Party is robust.''

The other problem for Jackson was the culture in Collier County, an area that is largely residential and not populated with major corporations with large workforces that receive millions in government funds. As such, a plan for Jackson with $130 million in state funds, combined with $130 million in county funds, was a large undertaking, he said.

"Collier County has never done anything that big before,'' Reagen said. "People here were willing to give them land. At the same time, the economy tanked.''

He added, "Having the government invest in new economic development things was foreign. This has been primarily residential. This was foreign and a big deal. The reality is it's too bad.''

At one point, the idea seemed destined to happen with a euphoric, 51-minute press conference at the upscale Naples Hilton on July 21, 2010 as Jackson announced a new partnership with the University of South Florida. Charles "Chuck'' Hewett, Jackson's vice president and chief operating officer, participated in that press conference. For the previous 18 months, Jackson had been trying to sell a previous proposal in Florida for a biomedical village.

"Many have been skeptical about our ability to achieve that vision,'' Hewett said during the Naples press conference.

More than a year later, Hewett was the same person who briefed the House and Senate Republicans at the state Capitol complex in Hartford.

Eventually, though, citizens in south Florida came out against the project, including holding signs at a public meeting that said, "No Tax Money For Jackson Labs.''

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