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Portland Technology Park: Unique setting, or in need of a niche?

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Portland Technology Park: Unique setting, or in need of a niche?

PORTLAND — If you build it, will they come?

Officials hoped so at a Sept. 18 ribbon-cutting for the first city-owned business park. Portland Technology Park, a 26-acre site off Rand Road, is intended to lure businesses in the state's growing life-sciences industry.

But whether the park will attract them remains to be seen.

After being first proposed in 2010, the city broke ground on the park last December and since then has installed utilities and constructed a 1,500-foot stretch of road, funded with a $1.3 million mix of federal and city funds. Three lots – two that are each about 1.5 acres in size, and a 3.5-acre lot – are for sale at prices between $270,000 and $670,000.

Buyers will pay an annual fee of a few thousand dollars for maintenance of the park's road and common grounds, and will be responsible for development of the lots, including buildings and parking areas.

When fully built out in 2015, the campus is expected to include another 525 feet of road and a total of seven lots, accommodating buildings between 10,000 and 40,000 square feet, for a total of 120,000 square feet.

Greg Mitchell, the city's director of economic development, on Friday said there has been "interest" in the park, but no buyers. He said he hopes they'll be attracted to the design, which is intended to minimize the park's impact on the environment, while offering workers access to walking trails in nearly 200 acres of protected land surrounding the development.

The environmentally friendly features include gravel wetlands that will handle storm water, and building sites that maximize the potential use of solar energy. In addition, all buildings on the campus will have to meet the city's Green Building Code. And a trail head is planned to connect the park to to the network of paths.

The park is just yards from Exit 47 of the Maine Turnpike, and offers convenient access to destinations such as the University of Southern Maine, Maine Medical Center and the Portland International Jetport, Mitchell added.

"We think we have the right mix of things here, including some amenities like the trails that are unique," he said.

If successful, the mix would be an unconventional one. Biotechnology companies and other life-science organizations have traditionally gravitated to such hubs as Boston and San Francisco, the homes of major medical schools, research universities and venture capital firms.

The combination creates a synergy of people and money. In the Boston area, for example, a life-science start-up can consult with world-class researchers at Harvard University Medical School, discuss funding with a downtown investment firm, and meet with a potential business partner at one of the region's many biotech parks – all in one day.

While Portland may not be as well known for those types of residents, the area nevertheless is headquarters to a burgeoning bunch of biotech businesses.

"With more than 40 life-science businesses, the Portland area is home to the largest cluster in the state, and as we look to future economic development and opportunity we need to build the infrastructure like the Portland Technology Park to support growth and attract new business,” Mayor Michael Brennan said in a press release.

Statewide, biotech companies employ about 5,000 people and have generated more than $1.3 billion in revenue, with the economic impact increasing 200 percent since 2002, according to the city.

Many of Maine's biotech workers are employed by IDEXX Laboratories, a veterinary products company serving 175 countries and based four miles away from Portland Technology Park, in Westbrook.

Still, an undeveloped parcel of land on Portland's fringe may not be enough to draw more business.

"I'd be pretty skeptical," said Luke Timmerman, a nationally known writer and blogger who has covered the biotech industry for more than a decade at the Seattle Times and Bloomberg News.

"Just about every state and every country has been trying to build themselves up as a biotech 'cluster' over the past 10 years," Timmerman said in a phone interview. "If Portland, Maine, is serious about attracting more industry, it's probably best trying to find some sort of niche."

The trail network and Portland's much-touted quality of life may not be important enough "assets," Timmerman said. Although he's unfamiliar with the city, he pointed out that many areas claim similar attributes.

The presence of a major research institution helps provide the "bedrock" for any biotech cluster, he said. "You need the foundation of major research ... people come there to get experience in the industry, then a few companies start to move there and spin out new ventures."

The area's universities and hospitals may offer a foundation, but the competition to attract life science business is tough and getting tougher, Timmerman said. As the industry has consolidated in the wake of economic recession, biotech companies are moving more often to larger, traditional centers of medical research, such as Boston.

"(Biotechnology) used to have a much more widely dispersed playing field," he said. "But there's been a realization that companies have a better chance of innovating if they set up shop near the smartest people in the industry. ... The suburban or rural R&D campus just wasn't producing results."

In the 1990s, some cities and regions overcame those challenges by offering special incentives for life-science companies.

For example, the city of Richmond, Va., built a 34-acre biotechnology park that offers young companies lab equipment, offices and shared facilities such as reception and meeting rooms. Today, more than 60 companies have facilities at the park. And Amgen, the world's largest biotech company, built a manufacturing center in West Greenwich, R.I., after the state promised the company a large tax break.

Despite the industry's more recent consolidation, biotech manufacturing may still be a hidden opportunity for Portland Technology Park, Timmerman said.

While Boston is a magnet for life-science research and development, the high cost of labor and facilities there often makes manufacturing difficult. Meanwhile, Portland is just a two-hour drive away, and the park is already zoned for both offices and light manufacturing.

"Biotech manufacturing could be Portland's calling card," Timmerman said."Portland might find a way to fit into the Boston orbit (of biotech), especially since Massachusetts has had a hard time holding onto manufacturing."

Claire Deselle, executive director of the Bioscience Association of Maine, is also cautiously optimistic.

"While Maine may not be a major competitor today in the development of human pharmaceuticals, many bioscience companies in the state play a role in the development or manufacture of medical devices," Deselle said. "Maine is also growing in the areas of veterinary health products and other niche bioscience areas.

"The park is the next logical step in growing the infrastructure to attract more of these types of companies to the area."

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or whall@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.