The Jackson Laboratory

An artist's rendering of The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine, which is proposed for the University of Connecticut Health Center campus in Farmington. (September 25, 2011)

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for 18 months against Jackson Laboratory's plan to expand in Florida, and he was relieved when the proposal was finally withdrawn in the Sunshine State.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.