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FAU endorses plan for Planck research institute at Jupiter campus

Sun-Sentinel - 9/11/2007 12:00:00 AM
by Dianna Cahn

Florida Atlantic University wholeheartedly embraced the idea of bringing the Max Planck Society onto its Jupiter campus Monday. Scripps Florida is just as eager, with top scientists describing their excitement. The Business Development Board says the giant research institute will infuse $1.2 billion into the county's economy over 20 years.

When county commissioners consider the proposal today, they will have to look a long way down the road as they decide whether luring Max Planck to Palm Beach County is worth they $87 million the county is asked to contribute.

"There's a lot of things they have to consider — return on investment, impact on education, collaboration with Scripps, growth of the bioscience industry," Assistant County Administrator Shannon LaRocque said last week.

With its offer to create a bio-imaging institute in Palm Beach County, the Munich, Germany-based Max Planck brings a lot to the table.

It is an international research mammoth, ranked among the best in the world by TheTimes of London. It already employs more than 23,000 people, and with 80 to 100 patents a year and 76 spin-off companies since 1990, it has a track record of turning scientific research into profit.

It would enter into collaboration agreements with FAU and Scripps, turning the Jupiter campus into a science and research hub.

"What a terrific synergy it would be," said Harry Orf, vice president of scientific operations at Scripps Florida. "We are all excited."

For a county that spent more than $300 million to bring Scripps to Florida as the nucleus of a new bioscience cluster, Max Planck would be like watching the organism grow, said Max Planck President Peter Gruss.

"Look worldwide. The cluster is at the heart of developing a knowledge-based economy," Gruss said in an interview Monday, ahead of his presentation before the County Commission today. "If you want to form a knowledge-based economy, what you need at the heart of the matter is scientific excellency."

What Max Planck demands in return is $190 million for a new facility on 6 acres of the FAU Jupiter campus alongside Scripps and to ramp up its facility and staff. The county would fund $87 million. Another $90 million would be applied for from the state's $250 million innovation fund for scientific research.

The Business Development Board projects that Max Planck would generate $1.2 billion for the county's economy over 20 years. Based on a model created for the South Florida Economic Forecasting Partnership, the calculation determined that the institute would generate $330 billion in salaries; another $355 billion in gross regional product, or money generated through business activities; and $517 billion in what is known as economic output, or money generated indirectly.

But the projections also are made at a time when the language of economic indicators is changing, noted Richard Roberts, the county's financial management director.

Not only is the county in a budget crunch, new property tax changes mean that a project that used to generate tax revenue for the county by improving property values will no longer have the same financial effect, though new development would still add to the tax rolls.

So while the long-term gains might not pay the county's $87 million-plus-interest bill, it will be up to commissioners to determine Max Planck's value.

"I am not going to say don't do it," Roberts said. "It's a decision the board is going to have to make on the long-term economics of the county."

FAU's Board of Trustees passed a resolution Monday to collaborate with Max Planck. In addition to the science and the prestige, FAU will get 10,000 square feet of auditorium, lecture and classroom space within the new Max Planck facility, and it will enter into an academic and research affiliation agreement with the institute.

The university will also provide Max Planck with temporary space until its building is ready.

"It can provide a real feather in the cap of FAU," said FAU President Frank Brogan, "while at the same time a real economic boon for the county as well."