PORTLAND – Did Maine do enough to keep Jackson Lab from opening a new facility in Florida instead of here in Maine?

Last fall, the Bar Harbor-based Jackson Laboratory announced that it was considering setting up a new research facility in southern Florida that would eventually employ up to 300 workers. Along with other biomedical facilities, hospitals and schools it would attract, the Jackson Lab facility is expected to result in 7,000 to 8,000 new jobs and have an overall economic impact of $835 million.

Great news for southern Florida. But why not Maine?

The news about Jackson Lab’s Florida facility was met with a shrug from Maine leaders. There wasn’t a peep from the Legislature, which apparently didn’t see it as fitting into its “emergency session.” Asked to comment on the Jackson Lab announcement, Gov. John Baldacci told Maine Public Radio, “More power to them.” His spokesman told the news media that Maine simply can’t compete with the hundreds of millions of dollars in financial incentives the state of Florida is offering Jackson Lab.

Seriously? Maine can’t compete?

The Jackson Lab jobs are exactly the type of clean, high-tech jobs that every politician running for office promises to bring to Maine. If we can’t compete for these jobs from a company that is already headquartered here, how are we ever going to attract new companies and new jobs to Maine? Are candidates misleading the public, not facing reality, or are we just not doing the hard work we need to do to attract and keep these jobs here in Maine?

Florida’s incentive package to Jackson Lab is significant. According to news reports, the Florida Legislature approved a $50 million incentive package for Jackson Lab in the first year for the purchase of land and construction of the facility, an amount that will be matched with local and private funding. Could Maine have done something like this?

In the past session of the Maine Legislature, we heard proposals for nearly $100 million in state bonds to create or maintain mostly short-term construction and highway jobs. Although the proposal was whittled down to about $58 million, the bonds will provide an important injection into the economy at a time when unemployment remains high.

But for 7,000 to 8,000 long-term, good-paying, high-tech jobs, couldn’t the state have come up with something even more attractive? Last year, Maine received $827 million in federal stimulus dollars. Couldn’t some of that money have been better spent attracting these jobs than plugging holes in the state budget and shoring up existing state programs?

Furthermore, over the past 10 years, Maine taxpayers have footed the bill for more than $40 million in state funds for Jackson Lab. The economic return from the direct and indirect jobs created makes this investment worthwhile. But is it too much to expect that in return for this money, Maine should get first refusal on any new facility the company plans to create?

As governor, I would have immediately called an emergency summit to discuss the Jackson Lab situation and brainstorm on what could be done to convince Jackson Lab to locate these jobs here in Maine. We have much more to offer than just money — a low crime rate, uncongested highways, and a quality of life that is far superior to southern Florida.

Did our elected officials even try? Maybe in the end Jackson Lab would still have gone to Florida. But that would have just pointed out the need for an overall economic development strategy so Maine can compete for these jobs in the future. The fact that we apparently don’t have one is a scandal.

I believe Maine must compete for jobs like these. We really don’t have a choice. If we don’t, Maine will always lose out to bigger states with bigger budgets, and our economy will continue to struggle.

That means we have to greatly improve our education system and match our graduates with the jobs that are available and that we want to attract. We need to reduce our energy costs so we can compete with Sun Belt states, reform our tax code and lower our health care costs so businesses can grow and expand.

And we have to act fast and be willing to fight when a major Maine employer looks elsewhere to create hundreds of new jobs. Jackson Lab’s move to Florida should have sent shock waves instead of a shrug. It’s a wake-up call that Maine isn’t doing enough to compete for the jobs of the next century.

 

– Special to the Press Herald