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Frederick County

Buying a Front-Row Seat For a Future in Biodefense

Officials Celebrate Fruits of Tax Breaks at Vaccine Plant

By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 5, 2004; Page C05

When the maker of the country's most widely used anthrax vaccine cut the ribbon on its new plant in Frederick County last week, an array of public officials, including Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., praised the package of financial perks that drew the company here.

But at least one politician, County Commissioner John L. "Lennie" Thompson Jr., said he wondered: Was the giveaway really needed to lure BioPort, a Michigan-based vaccine maker, to Frederick?

Emergent BioSolutions Inc. plans to use its new 150,000-square-foot building for making anthrax vaccine. The company expects to employ as many as 400 people and invest $95 million in Frederick. (Photos Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)

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"We're hoping that with the location of BioPort, there will be interest from other bioscience organizations," said Laurie Boyer, director of operations for the county's Office of Economic Development. Without the loan and tax breaks that the state and county extended, she said, "they probably would not have come."

BioPort, a subsidiary of Emergent BioSolutions Inc., opened a 150,000-square-foot vaccine plant in an industrial park off Route 85, along the Interstate 270 technology corridor. In a statement, the company said it planned to spend $95 million to equip the facility, buy another building nearby and employ as many as 400 people.

Speaking at the opening, Ehrlich said that though Maryland and Frederick are "hot" areas for bioscience research, "there are not a lot of bioscience manufacturing facilities." That, along with the jobs, was a key reason Maryland ponied up more than $10 million in financial incentives, including a $2.5 million forgivable loan to BioPort from the state. The county granted $250,000 in tax relief.

Aris Melissaratos, secretary of the Maryland Department of Business & Economic Development, said he was quoting U.S. Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett (R-Md.) in saying: "Maryland is about technological dominance. Maryland must become the world's capital in vaccine production."

But Thompson, the only no vote on BioPort's tax deal, argued that Maryland can achieve that status without "corporate welfare."

"You can't keep people away from here with a flamethrower," he said. "We sell our state and county short when we have to pay companies to come here."

It is true that when it comes to attracting biodefense and biotechnology businesses, Maryland trumps Virginia, its closest competitor. Maryland's biggest asset is the Bethesda-based National Institutes of Health, which drives billions of dollars in research spending.

In Frederick, the NIH's National Cancer Institute operates a research center that has lured bioscience firms to the county, including California-based Scientific Applications International Corp., which operates the cancer institute. SAIC opened its own facility in the same industrial park as BioPort's plant. But SAIC did not garner any publicly funded incentives, Boyer said.

The Army's Fort Detrick has grown into one of the country's leading centers for biodefense research over the past decade and plans to expand its work over the next decade.

Emergent BioSolutions' chairman and chief executive, Fuad El-Hibri, said Frederick's proximity to the Defense Department, the company's biggest customer by far for its anthrax vaccine, was a key lure. "All the federal agencies are here," he said. "This plant brings us closer to where our customers are."

Mike Zamiara, Emergent's chief financial officer, negotiated the deal with the state and county. "He drove a hard bargain," Melissaratos said.

Zamiara said BioPort had looked at its home base of Michigan as well as Illinois, Virginia and Pennsylvania as possible locations for the plant.

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