Published October 17. 2012 2:00PM Updated October 17. 2012 11:56PM
Farmington — Early site work has begun on a controversial state-financed $291 million genetics laboratory at the University of Connecticut Health Center campus outside of Hartford.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy on Wednesday joined UConn President Susan Herbst and a group of legislators and lab employees to witness the start of demolition of 12 small buildings to clear space for The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine.
The 173,000-square-foot research facility, scheduled for completion by late 2014, will become the state’s branch of The Jackson Laboratory, a world-renowned nonprofit research institute based in Bar Harbor, Maine.
Much of the Connecticut research would involve the growing field of “personalized medicine,” or treatments tailored to an individual’s unique genetic makeup.
The state is issuing bonds to finance the lab’s construction via a $192 million “forgivable loan” to Jackson Lab. The state is also giving $99 million in grants for research there and for related purposes.
In exchange, Jackson Lab is under contract to create 300 positions within 10 years, including 90 scientist jobs. Nearly everyone employed under the building’s roof would count toward the 300-job minimum, from lab assistants to janitors.
But the jobs must pay an average wage equal to 125 percent of the state average— $74,328 based on 2010 data.
Ten full-time UConn faculty members who would work in the lab also will count toward the minimum, said Catherine Smith, commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development.
The Malloy administration courted Jackson Lab last year after inadequate state subsidies led the institute to drop its plans for a Florida lab.
The state’s Democratic-majority General Assembly authorized the Jackson deal with a 101-41 vote in the House, 21-14 in the Senate.
The project faced many Republican opponents, including state Rep. Chris Coutu of Norwich, who portrayed the lab as a pricey and risky venture with uncertain benefits for the state.
“The state of Florida said no, venture capitalists said no, and here Governor Malloy is giving away the house,” Coutu, now running for state Senate, said in a phone interview.
At Wednesday’s event, Malloy called Jackson Lab a long-term investment that would give the state a lead role in genetics and bioscience research while creating numerous spin-off jobs.
“We had a place in this arena in Connecticut — a leading role for a period of time — but we allowed that to dissipate,” the governor said of bioscience research.
Mike Doyle, the Republican challenging state Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford, has criticized the Jackson Lab subsidies throughout his campaign, arguing that the money would be better spent assisting small businesses. Stillman, who last year voted for the plan, regularly cites its high-tech job creation potential.
Malloy once again called Pfizer Inc.’s decision last year to ship about 400 jobs from Groton to Cambridge, Mass., a “shot across the bow” for the state to get serious about bioscience.
Malloy said Jackson Lab’s presence has global implications and noted receiving many envious comments about the project during his recent trip to China.
State Rep. Kevin Ryan, D-Montville, attended the demolition event and told The Day that he considers the state’s investment worthwhile.
“Maybe it won’t have an immediate effect on southeastern Connecticut, but it will have an effect on the state,” Ryan said. “Hopefully it will help us keep what remains of Pfizer in the area because that’s a big concern right now.”
At least 16 newly hired Jackson Lab employees already have begun work at the UConn health center in temporary space before the new lab opens, according to Michael Hyde, Jackson Lab’s vice president for external affairs and strategic partnerships.
“We’ve had zero transfers from Maine — these are all new hires,” he added.