Headlines

As published as an editorial in The Hartford Courant, May 19, 2011.

Health Center Expansion: Thinking Big on Job Creation

'Bioscience Connecticut': Gov. Malloy Doubles Down on UConn Health Center Expansion

Don't accuse Gov. Dannel P. Malloy of dawdling over a big decision.

He has been in the executive residence for five months and he's already balanced a budget, reached a tentative labor agreement with state employees, given the green light to the long-stalled $600 million New Britain-to-Hartford busway and, this week, begun beating the drums for a $900 million economic development initiative called "Bioscience Connecticut."

It's a bold stroke, one designed to carve out a bigger share of the growing bioscience business for Connecticut while stabilizing the University of Connecticut Health Center's finances.

It's also a proposal that needs a pair of expert independent eyes to examine the validity of its economic assumptions before spending begins. We like the sound of the initiative, but the state can't be too careful about such a huge investment.

State Needs a Research Triangle

UConn's 36-year-old Health Center is overdue for a renovation. And Connecticut is overdue for a North Carolina-like Research Triangle investment that links UConn's talent with Yale University's leadership on life sciences research and its growing biotech businesses, and the Greater Hartford region's rich array of medical services.

According to Mr. Malloy's plan, between 2012 and 2018, the state would replace the patient tower at the UConn Health Center in Farmington, build a new outpatient care center, renovate the UConn Health Center to increase bioscience research capacity, recruit up to 50 top-notch research scientists and expand incubator space to foster new business startups.

Further, enrollments in UConn's medical and dental schools would increase by 30 percent and graduates would be given incentives to practice in Connecticut. The number of Health Center primary and specialty care clinicians would increase.

This is an expensive investment that requires a private partner with deep pockets (yet to be found) and a good chunk ($254 million) of new borrowing, on top of the $300 million already borrowed for the project. The state has dangerously high levels of bonded indebtedness. But this is the kind of borrowing it should be doing, to grow jobs rather than pay routine bills.

The governor promises that this activity would provide an average of 3,000 construction jobs each year from 2012 to 2018. The plan is estimated to generate 16,400 high-quality, permanent jobs by 2037 and a $4.6 billion increase in personal income.

Using the state's great creativity to power economic development is what Connecticut should have been doing more of all along. Think about the academic/entrepreneurial synergy in Cambridge and Menlo Park that produced the fabled landscapes of innovation and wealth called the Route 128 corridor and Silicon Valley. This state's research output as measured by grants would be doubled under Bioscience Connecticut.

At a Courant editorial board meeting Tuesday, an expansive Mr. Malloy said his vision of "Bioscience Connecticut" is "so much bigger and more important than the bite-sized proposal last year [to renovate the UConn Health Center], which really had nothing to recommend it."

Losing Ground on Bio-Jobs

The governor is right that Connecticut has been losing ground on jobs-creating research and needs to get in the game in a hurry so that the state can attract the level of talent that is needed. He also says that the Health Center "is on a precipice" and could "fall rapidly" unless rescued.

His sense of urgency and mission has been missing for too long from the chief executive's office.

Mr. Malloy is also right, unfortunately, in concluding that it is too late to bring the UConn Health Center either in whole or in parts to Hartford. It's "too expensive to pull up stakes" and would take too long, he said.

But the Health Center with its expanded research component remaining in Farmington only 11 miles from Hartford doesn't foreclose even more useful collaboration with other hospitals in the region.

If Mr. Malloy is on target with his economic assumptions, he and the legislature should launch "Bioscience Connecticut" as soon as possible, with only one further caveat: Considering UConn's history with construction projects, an executive branch expert should monitor the building projects from start to finish.