Miami-Dade County

UM biotech park seeking $10 million from the county to expand

The University of Miami Life Science and Technology Park building in the health district in Miami.
The University of Miami Life Science and Technology Park building in the health district in Miami. FOR THE MIAMI HERALD

The University of Miami Life Science & Technology Park wants to expand — and it wants county taxpayers to help pay for it.

The university’s partner developer, Wexford Miami LLC, is asking the county for $10 million in economic development grants. In return, the project is promising to create a 14-story, 244,000-square-foot expansion of its biotech park, which first opened in 2011.

The $112 million plan includes a hotel and a 646-car parking garage. In the developer’s application with the county, it promises the biotech project would create 476 jobs by the end of 2022. The UM biotech center is located near Jackson Memorial Hospital.

The proposal had its first public unveiling on Thursday, when an economic development committee of Miami-Dade County commissioners voted 3-2 to approve the project’s request. Commissioners Xavier Suarez, Bruno Barreiro, and Audrey Edmonson voted in favor, Commissioners Dennis Moss and Rebeca Sosa voted against.

“It’s bringing a lot of jobs,” said Edmonson, who sponsored the proposal.

Both UM and Wexford declined comment on Thursday.

Before the biotech park gets any money, the Miami-Dade County Commission must approve the $10 million in the coming weeks. The economic development money is part of a $2.9 billion bond issue approved by county voters in 2004. Wexford’s request is for a piece of a $75 million economic development fund included in the bond issue.

Competition for those dollars has been fierce — as of now, the $75 million is spoken for. So for the biotech project to get a share, it has to not only get approved by the county, but one of the already-approved projects would have to fall through.

“It will be standing in line behind three others that the commission has already approved,” Edmonson said.

The money is paid out on a reimbursement basis, that is, a firm has to spend the money, and hire the employees it promised, before getting paid by taxpayers. This creates the possibility that some already-approved companies won’t collect any funds.

“We don't have any signed contracts,” Mayor Carlos Gimenez said on Thursday night during a town hall at the West Dade library. “They have to do what they said they were going to do, prove it for a year, and then they'll get reimbursed.”

Gimenez’s office, which opposed previous efforts by the biotech project to get public money, said the mayor hasn’t taken a position on the latest new proposal.

Before approving the $10 million item, county commissioners debated whether to postpone it. Commissioners are awaiting a report on how to handle these requests going forward, since the funds are all spoken for.

Edmonson pushed her colleagues to approve the biotech park’s request.

“I think we should allow this to go through and maybe freeze it afterward,” she said.

Biotech jobs tend to be well-paying, and they’re environmentally friendly, but industry experts caution that biotech firms don’t usually employ large numbers of people.

In May, well-known biotech expert Joe Cortright wrote that Florida is still nowhere near becoming a biotech hub — despite former Gov. Jeb Bush investing hundreds of millions of public dollars to lure the Scripps Research Institute to Palm Beach County in 2003.

“While venture capital funding fluctuates from quarter to quarter, Florida’s share of national biotechnology venture capital funding is still less than 1 percent — in the same range that it was before its subsidies to Scripps and other research laboratories,” Cortright wrote.

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