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The University of Florida is expanding its footprint in Palm Beach County

 Buildings on the campus of Scripps Florida at dawn.
Bruce Bennett
The Palm Beach Post
Buildings on the campus of Scripps Florida at dawn.

UF already planning to build a campus in West Palm Beach.

Florida's flagship university is expanding its footprint in Palm Beach County. It was reported on Tuesday that the University of Florida purchased the Scripps Research Institute's three buildings in Jupiter, as well as 70 empty acres in Palm Beach Gardens that were once reserved for the institute as part of a deal made in 2006.

The university already has plans to build a downtown campus in West Palm Beach.

WLRN’s Sherrilyn Cabrera spoke with Palm Beach Post reporter Katherine Kokal about the purchase — and the biotech hub that never happened.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

WLRN: The University of Florida got a lot out of this deal. Besides the three facilities, what else came with the purchase?

KOKAL: All of the staff that are currently working for Scripps will be onboarded to UF Health. They'll keep a separate Scripps title, but they will officially be UF health employees. This also comes with $102 million in cash and investments that Scripps currently has. Those are investments and money that are committed toward current and future research projects, as well as all of the equipment, all of the laboratory space and everything in those buildings. Potentially, though, the most valuable that's included in this deal [is] the deed of 70 acres across Donald Ross Road in Palm Beach Gardens, and that is vacant land that was purchased by Palm Beach County for the development of a biotech village that Scripps would create.

So what happened? 

This was part of a big push by former Governor Jeb Bush to bring a new and diversifying force to Palm Beach County's economy, really Florida's economy. And so the idea was to move beyond tourism, agriculture as the main drivers of our economy here. So bring these high paying jobs, campuses that would attract more talent and different types of investment and different spinoff businesses. That was kind of the impetus of this deal.

Over the years, it became clear that northern Palm Beach County needed more time than originally thought. I mean, we at the Palm Beach Post talked to people who said, this isn't something that you create overnight. You don't just create a biotech village out of nowhere in South Florida. This is something that takes decades.

So what happened is these three buildings that became known as the Scripps Campus that have tons of staff, over 500 employees now, were created, but the land across the road, the 70 vacant acres that was reserved by Palm Beach County for all of these spinoff businesses and different labs and incubation space just didn't happen. A huge part of that was also the recession in 2008. That really changed the amount of cash that was flowing into biotech investment and it also really changed the way that scientists moved forward with their research.

Florida Atlantic University was the original partner in the Scripps venture. Why did FAU, which is based in Palm Beach County, get cut out of the deal in favor of UF, which is based hundreds of miles away?  

The relationship between FAU and Scripps kind of deteriorated over the years. There were some public meetings where members of Scripps leadership kind of dissed FAU and from what we know publicly, that kind of sped up the change in that relationship. And so FAU hasn't returned a lot of calls over the years about Scripps, and that's kind of what we know so far.

In terms of county officials and residents, how do they feel about this hub that was supposed to happen, but never did? 

There are a couple of schools of thought on that. One, taxpayers want to see something there. Taxpayers in Palm Beach County shelled out almost $600 million to bring Scripps to Jupiter. And so people want to see those high-paying jobs, they want to see that innovation. Jupiter has talked many, many times about how Jupiter can be a life sciences center, and there are several spinoff businesses from Scripps that have set up shop in Jupiter and that are successful. But I think everyone as a taxpayer wants to see this come to fruition because they have such a big stake in it.

At the same time, county officials that I've spoken to and former county officials are feeling confident about UF's involvement because it is a huge research institution. And so I spoke with county leaders who said “this was what we needed. We needed the buy-in of a massive university with a ton of resources and clinical space,” because an important distinction is that the Scripps Research Institute doesn't have clinical space for scientists to test things that are going on. Whereas UF operates teaching hospitals and operates clinical space for all of these biomedical innovations to be playing out in real time. And so there's optimism, and people are anxious to know whether UF will deliver on the promise that Scripps made all those years ago.

Copyright 2022 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

During her time at Florida International University, where she recently graduated from with a Bachelors in Journalism, Sherrilyn Cabrera interned for the South Florida News Service - a digital journalism platform where stories are written, shot and edited by FIU students. As part of her senior project, she reported on the influx of Puerto Ricans who migrated to Florida after Hurricane Maria, and the impact it could have had on the November 2018 midterm elections.