In the end, both sides blinked. Commissioners in Palm Beach County, Florida, yesterday voted to limit the liability of the Scripps Research Institute's planned Florida biomedical research facility to $5 million should Scripps abandon its Florida operations prior to the end of its 15-year contract or fail to hire a critical mass of scientists. Scripps officials, meanwhile, agreed to cap construction costs that will be billed to the county. The deal clears the way for Scripps to build an east coast branch with construction slated to start no later than 31 March 2007.
Yesterday's bargain represents the latest milestone in the two-and-half-year effort to bring Scripps--one of the largest private, nonprofit research organizations in the United States--to South Florida. On 9 October 2003, Florida Governor Jeb Bush announced that Scripps would build that new facility at a Palm Beach County site called Mecca Farms. But a legal challenge from environmentalists scuttled that deal last fall. Scripps officials quickly proposed building a trio of new research buildings on the campus of Florida Atlantic University (FAU) in Jupiter, where they already had about 160 scientists working in temporary facilities. But county commissioners felt burned after already sinking $110 million into the Mecca Farms site and worried that they could wind up hundreds of millions of dollars in the hole if Scripps didn't remain in Jupiter for the long term. County officials suggested Scripps take out a $100 million bond to encourage them to stay for the long term. But Scripps officials balked, saying this would put the endowment of their San Diego, California, facility at risk.
This week, Governor Bush reentered the picture to broker a deal along with FAU President Frank Brogan. In the arrangement, Brogan agreed that FAU--with state backing--would buy Scripps' laboratories for $100 million if the institute leaves the county. "The bottom line is this removes one of the biggest gray clouds hanging over things," says Scripps Florida biochemist Matthew Pletcher. The final deal is not done yet. FAU's board, Scripps' board, and the Florida state legislature among others all still need to sign off. But Pletcher says that for now it looks like the biggest hurdle has been cleared. "This puts us on track in the right direction," he says.