Can't really sugarcoat it.
The failure of the BioLink project - an ambitious city-led effort to create greenhouse space for commercializing agriculture research - is a major setback in the region's efforts to create a 21st-century economy.
There are compelling reasons why the project never broke ground, despite winning a seemingly game-changing $4.5 million federal grant in 2010. But there are also compelling reasons for the project - slated for the city's southeast side in the BioAg Gateway research park - to succeed.Simply put, Dane County has world-class assets in farm- and food-related technology. First and foremost,
A whole cluster of bio-ag companies have taken root in the shadow of the ag school - everything from Renk Seed to ABS Global to bio-agriculture operations owned by international giants Monsanto, DuPont and Dow. The UW-Extension estimates that farming generates almost $3.5 billion a year in business sales in Dane County. And the annual World Dairy Expo is, appropriately, world renowned.
So BioLink, with its proposed high-end greenhouses for startups and other bio-ag tenants, made a lot of sense, right? Well, uh, no.
"It was a very bad idea, not unlike manufacturing air conditioners for apartments on the moon," says Mayor Paul Soglin. "There's no market for what they wanted to do. There never was."
Last Tuesday, the Common Council concurred and voted without comment to terminate the federal grant after a two-year extension failed to yield either an anchor tenant or new funding to cover a financing gap in the long-delayed construction.
Interviews with more than a dozen participants and observers revealed multiple punctures in the BioLink dream - a seriously misperceived market, inflexible federal officials, city hall's awkwardness as a developer, a hostile economic environment and a fatal failure of government, business and the university to work together.
That last point rankles Paul Jadin, the new president of the Thrive regional development group. "I was looking for a little more unity and enthusiasm," he says. "I don't think I witnessed that kind of support from all of the players. They didn't see BioLink as a high priority."
Zach Brandon, who's also a newbie in his job as the head of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, sees the collapse of the BioLink effort as one in a series of economic disappointments for the region. "We need to finish what we start," he says. "It's the trend line that concerns me, not the data point of this project."
Soglin was in characteristic blunt mode when we talked. But nobody I interviewed disagreed with the thrust of his comments. The city landed a major grant for a project, he says, "on the fly," before the market was assayed and partners lined up. The money, the Wisconsin State Journal reported, came from - of all places - an $81 million flood recovery program for the Midwest. Dave Cieslewicz was mayor.
Frank Staniszewski, head of the nonprofit Madison Development Corp., which tried to develop the project for the city, says he knocked on the doors of a long list of UW plant researchers and private concerns looking for entrepreneurial tenants - and came up empty.
He admits he was caught by surprise, pointing out that MDC has invested in and loaned money to more than 40 life science startups, including Mirus Bio, TomoTherapy and NeuWave Medical, that grew out of university research. "We assumed we'd see the same entrepreneurialism in the ag school. But it wasn't there."
Bad timing made things worse - the Great Recession sent likely business partners into the bunkers, wallets tightly clutched. And the federal Economic Development Administration, which made the grant, was inflexible on permitting changes in the original building plan, project staffers say.
Called the Midwest BioLink and Commercialization Center, the plan specified (PDF) a 31,000-square-foot building with shared greenhouse space, laboratories and offices on 2.6 acres in the city's BioAg Gateway business park on the southeast side. Costs were estimated upwards of $9 million, but were never nailed down because the tenant mix was unknown. Even with a promised $2 million city subsidy (in the form of tax increment financing), the financial gap was estimated as high as $3.5 million.
"The project never had a true stakeholder," says Brandon. "It never had a true commitment to see it through to completion."
Brandon, who backed the project when he served on the Common Council and reviewed it in his old job at the state Department of Commerce, gets to a quiet truth of BioLink: The major players in town never locked arms to get it built.
Michael Gay, the city's former coordinator for business development, is the guy credited with landing the federal grant. He says that while Madison has dropped the ball on bio-ag, other communities like Orlando, St. Louis and even Saskatoon (in Canada!) have moved forward on agricultural biotechnology. "It's all about community partnerships," he says of their advances.
Gay talks gently on this point, but others don't. The UW, the source of so much extraordinary agricultural research, never stepped up to the plate on BioLink. It's the familiar complaint, warranted or not, that the campus does not play well with others.
Some fault the leadership at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences for turning its back on BioLink. But reality is that the college had far bigger fish to fry: launching the federally funded $125 million Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center. "BioLink was not a project that CALS was vested in," admits Rick Lindroth, CALS's associate dean for research. "It was not critical to our vision."
While the University Research Park provided BioLink planners with technical support, director Mark Bugher says his team is focused on developing a new 371-acre research park on the west side. "It caught us at a bad time," he says of BioLink. "My comment internally was that we needed this distraction like we needed a hole in the head. It's unfortunate. I feel badly about it. The city had an opportunity, but there are some lessons to be learned."
Successful projects require "a purpose and use that everybody agrees is needed," he points out. "And people have got to come together."
But it's telling that Bugher also acknowledges that Madison leaders are going in "eight different directions" on tech development.
That may explain why Jadin, whose Thrive group supposedly is hammering out a common economic development strategy for the region, sounds so frustrated with the BioLink collapse. When I bumped into him last week at the Wisconsin Innovation Network luncheon, he suggested that the BioLink program might fit into an ambitious 217-acre ag-related complex being discussed for Evansville by leaders of the Southern Wisconsin Agriculture Group.
"There may be value in getting behind them," he says of Thrive's efforts to promote farm and food systems.
Geography note: Evansville is in Rock County, at a comfortable distance from the intrigues of Madison.