By Jeff Hansel
Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN
Most communities across the United States face job losses this year.
But Pine Island and surrounding communities stand on a precipice with the Elk Run biotechnology project that could bring thousands of new jobs to the region, increase construction, draw national attention, boost population growth and add a whirlwind of activity during the coming decade.
California-based Tower Investments, and venture-capital group Burrill & Co., also of California, announced that nearly $1 billion is in play for development of a biotechnology center at Elk Run.
Burrill specializes in the life sciences.
"It's a big plan. There could be thousands of jobs out there eventually," said Gary Smith, president of Rochester Area Economic Development.
People in the know say Burrill is attracted by Pine Island's location within a short driving distance to researchers at Mayo Clinic and a short commute to research labs at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities.
The biotechnology project will also have access to the Hormel Institute in Austin, IBM in Rochester and the Minnesota Partnership for Biotechnology and Medical Genomics, which is located in Rochester and the Twin Cities with a Rochester headquarters.
There are hundreds of biotech companies, large and small, scattered throughout the state, such as Medtronic in the Twin Cities and Kerry Bioscience in Rochester.
And there's a skilled work force and a well-established educational system that produces doctors and researchers.
Plop down $1 billion to draw biotech companies to Pine Island, and the results could turn Minnesota into a globally competitive biotech powerhouse.
"You can't say enough about the potential that this may hold for the area," said Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Wabasha. The most important aspect of the project, he said, "is the jobs it's going to create for the area."
If the biotech project succeeds, Smith said, it would have regional effects. People have been second-guessing the project, he said, but "with the right people engaged with one another, just about anything is possible out there."
"Mayo Clinic has had dialogue with Tower Investments for the past few years as they work toward development of Elk Run," said Mayo spokesman Adam Brase. "We have been asked to participate in some planning activities."
State Rep. Randy Demmer said it's hard to get his arms around the project's potential economic impact.
"I know it's multiple companies. It's a biobusiness park is what it is. So we're talking about a group of companies that would be synergistic," Demmer said.
"Working with a world-class firm like Burrill brings to Elk Run capital, experience, innovation and opportunity that will be transformative for the region," Tower founder and CEO Stephen Marks said in a statement.
Pine Island long ago foresaw the coming competitive nature of the local economic market and positioned the city to take advantage of opportunities that exist now, said City Administrator Abraham Algadi.
The city plan avoids new development in flood zones and residential development along U.S. 52, he said. The city mapped out the best places for retail development, housing and business growth. Biotechnology became the obvious best fit, and a clear plan for the city's future took shape.
"Once you fix this with broad brushes like this, it makes private investment easier," Algadi said.
A few developers came and went before Tower Investments became interested, he said. But now Tower has signed a deal.
"Good things come to those who wait," Algadi said.
"Elk Run is geographically and strategically positioned in a uniquely propitious way. The opportunity to work with Tower on this enterprise is exciting for us especially considering Elk Run's proximity to Rochester, home of Mayo Clinic, and its incredible potential to create and attract bioscience companies to the state," said Burrill founder and CEO G. Steven Burrill.
Reporter Jeff Hansel covers health for the Post-Bulletin. Read his blog, Pulse on Health, at Postbulletin.com