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Biotech Park Inches Forward

Dream still alive for high-tech cluster of companies and jobs centered around UH med school

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Photo: Google

But this has been a tough economic nut to crack, requiring a solid population base, skilled workers, a reasonable cost of living plus places to live, and more than one research institution to enable tech transfer. Successful cities that fit those criteria include San Diego and the Denver suburbs, where the new Fitzsimmons Campus biotech park is considered the nation’s largest. North Carolina is chasing the dream with its launch of a $500 million, 350-acre research campus northeast of Charlotte — the Biopolis — partially powered by the state, seven nearby colleges and billionaire real estate developer David H. Murdoch, owner of the Dole Food Co.

While a thriving biotech park is still on the distant horizon in Honolulu, many say there is already much to applaud. JABSOM may be the only facility functioning, but it’s seeing “dramatic” growth in research grants, says the dean, Dr. Jerris Hedges, with additional clinical research programs moving into the Gold Bond Building. The cancer center is heading toward a “ground blessing” by the end of the year, Hedges says. Funding is coming, chiefly, from a portion of the tax on cigarettes. About $40 million is already allotted from that source.

“Our efforts in Kakaako are critically important,” says Gary Ostrander, UH vice chancellor for research and graduate education, noting the university’s long-term objective is to center the institution’s health-related research in Kakaako, which would provide important stimulus for a biotech sector.

Gary Ostrander, Vice Chancellor for
Research and Graduate Education,
University of Hawaii

This summer, the Hawaii Community Development Authority — the state agency that holds the title to state land in Kakaako, and is charged with planning the area — is sending out a request for proposals for the 3.5-acre parcel of state land next to the old pumping station on Ala Moana, across from the old Comp-USA store. HCDA executive director Anthony Ching envisions two 200-foot towers joined by an atrium (over a sewer easement) to offer 200,000 square feet of commercial space, plus research lab space.

“It could accommodate the High Tech Development Corp. and be suitable for incubator space,” says Ching.

Meanwhile, Kamehameha Schools, a key player in Kakaako, has adopted a wait-and-see attitude with its long-promised Asia Pacific Innovation Center, which would include wet labs for research scientists. The center would sit on Kamehameha Schools land between the Gold Bond Building and JABSOM and be the school’s contribution to growing this new industry.

Robert Oda, senior project manager for commercial real estate for Kamehameha, said that, while the project is “still alive as far as we’re concerned … a lot of things are weighing in as to whether we proceed or not.”

Oda said that with design of the center virtually complete, Kamehameha is doing “a final feasibility analysis to determine if we can proceed with the project.”

Robert Oda
Senior Project Manager for commercial real estate,
Kamehameha Schools

He said several factors will play into the project’s feasibility, including the current economic conditions in the state, the possibility of securing tenants for the innovation center, and continuing efforts by the Legislature to increase the amount of affordable housing in residential projects planned for the area.

Kamehameha Schools has a 15-year timeline to build a series of residential condo towers in Kakaako, to provide 2,750 units on 28.9 acres. But the number of units required to be set aside as “affordable” could affect the amount of money that Kamehameha says it can provide for the innovation center. Recently KS hoped to be able to break ground for the center in 2010.

Given the Legislature’s concern over the amount of affordable housing available in the area, Kamehameha will continue to work with lawmakers over “flexibility” in rules governing growth in Kakaako, said KS spokeswoman Erin Kinney. The issue is expected to continue as one of the hot buttons next year as the Legislature continues to scrutinize affordable housing in Kakaako and what it expects landowners to provide.

It’s all part of the state’s concept of re-creating Kakaako as a new urban neighborhood, with spaces for living, working and playing mixed together, and a new clean industry offering living-wage jobs.

According to HTDC’s Nagashima, a biotech industry in Kakaako needs synergy — all of the stakeholders coming together and buying into a vision of the future. That includes the landlords in the neighborhood, the local merchant associations, economic development groups, the Legislature and the state administration.

Kamehameha’s Oda agrees.

“In the long-term view of things,” he says, “it makes sense to support new industry. We’re still committed to that dream … It all ties back to education and providing kids with tools to aspire and work and have good jobs in this industry. But those things don’t happen overnight.”

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