By JEFF NEAL CJ News Editor
The Kentucky-Tennessee consortium — and Somerset, Ky. — is one step closer to landing the world’s premiere bio and agro-defense facility.
Congressman Hal Rogers announced yesterday that the Department of Homeland Security has selected a site in eastern Pulaski County as one of 14 finalists for a new $450 million national research laboratory that would make this area the world’s center for animal disease control.
The Kentucky-Tennessee group is the only multi-state consortium among the list of finalists.
“I’m elated, because this lets us know we can run with the big dogs,” said Rogers. “We believed we had a solid proposal, and a unique two-state consortium. This confirms that we can compete with the world’s best for this facility. I’m very proud.”
Ewell H. Balltrip, the executive director and CEO of the National Institute for Hometown Security, said the Pulaski County site received high marks from a Department of Homeland Security review committee composed of scientists involved in agriculture, homeland security and health and human services.
“To make it this far is a great accomplishment,” said Balltrip. “Now we just have to wait and see what comes next.”
Rogers said he expected that another cut would take the list down to two or three, probably sometime early next year.
“From there, DHS would conduct public hearings and environmental studies — it would determine how the facility would affect the community,” Rogers added.
The consortium, if successful, would position southern Kentucky and east Tennessee as a hub for homeland security scientific research. The partners include the University of Kentucky, the University of Louisville, the University of Tennessee and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
If the Pulaski County site is chosen, it is projected that the entire community landscape will change — much like Oak Ridge, Tenn., after the national lab was built there.
“The impact this facility would have for our region is mind-boggling,” said Greg Jones, the executive director of Southern and Eastern Kentucky Economic Development (SKED). “For years, Kentucky has wanted to be able to attract jobs for the 21st Century. This would allow us to do that, because some of the top scientists and researchers in the world would work and live right here in Somerset.”
Rogers pointed out the competition from here on out will be incredibly stiff.
“We are up against very strong competition — the best in the world,” Rogers said. “But as the selection process indicates, were are effectively competing for this facility.”
The new bio lab will replace the aging Plum Island Animal Disease Center in New Jersey.
“With the advent of the Department of Homeland Security, the mission of this type lab expands to fighting bio-terrorism,” Rogers said. “We have to protect our food supply. This is the new mission.”
Somerset Mayor JP Wiles said the community support from local government agencies, civic clubs and private citizens would be an asset as the selection process moves into its next phase.
“For the most part, I think people in our community are excited about the prospects of having the lab here,” Wiles said. “We have a great opportunity. We could have an additional 25,000-30,000 jobs over the next 30 years. Everyone who has children and grandchildren want them to have a better life. This is an opportunity to have good jobs and a better way of life for our citizens.”
Supporters of the project say the economic impact would encompass much more than the lab itself.
“There would be quite a few pharmaceutical labs moving in to be close to the lab — there would be many jobs associated with those facilities,” Rogers said. “In the 1950s, Oak Ridge was a field ... much like the site in Pulaski County where this lab would locate.
“The lab at Oak Ridge revitalized all of east Tennessee,” the congressman added. “The same thing can happen here.”
Of course, there are a few dissenting voices — most of them coming from the area 10 miles northeast of Somerset where the lab would be constructed.
“I can understand people who have farms out there, who will be displaced — those farms have been in families for generations,” Rogers said. “But, for the most part, opposition to the facility has been very limited.
“There’s always going to be a few people who disagree,” Rogers added. “People protested when we first put up gas street lights. They protested in eastern Kentucky when we put up flood walls. But some of those same people would tell you now they were wrong.”
The Kentucky-Tennessee consortium has received wide-ranging support from federal and state-level officials as well, including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and governors from both states.
“Today’s announcement recognizes the unique qualifications of our states to fulfill this vital homeland security need,” said Frist. “I thank Congressman Rogers for his efforts and will continue to work with the consortium to bring this important project to our region.”
This is proof that Kentucky is being recognized for its ability to be a leader in the field of bio research and testing,” said Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher.
The Department of Homeland Security estimates the facility will contain approximately 500,000 square feet of lab space. Once operational, the facility is expected to directly support over 400 jobs with an annual payroll of $30.5 million. The facility is expected to open in 2012.