The Great Slurp

Gov. Bush's Scripps gamble is sucking up state funds -- and the Everglades with it

Like a salesman refusing to remove his foot from the door, Gov. Bush landed the Scripps deal for Florida by talking his way into a long car ride. Last July, the governor got a tip that Scripps was considering opening a new branch now that its La Jolla, California, headquarters had become cramped. Bush immediately saw the vast potential of Scripps' picking Florida. He deemed it "Operation Air Conditioning," calling it as important to Florida as the invention of Freon-cooled homes. Scripps could provide much-needed jobs during a downturned economy and fulfill an election promise by Bush to get the biotech industry into Florida. Bush flew out to Scripps headquarters July 17 and found a way to get a two-hour, uninterrupted conversation with Lerner: He tagged along with the Scripps president while he drove to catch a flight at the Los Angeles airport.

Chatting their way north, Bush's 120-mile sales pitch to Lerner proved successful. The Scripps president, a Democrat who financially supported former Sen. Bill Bradley for president in 1999 over Bush's brother, was impressed by the governor. Lerner attributed it to Bush's charm, but it was also his willingness to give Lerner whatever he wanted. In a follow-up discussion, Bush agreed to give Scripps a new facility, as much land as it needed, and to pay its payroll for the first few years. He made these promises without approval from any other elected official or from Florida taxpayers.

1000 Friends of Florida's Joanne Davis in the wilds near the future Scripps site
Eric Alan Barton
1000 Friends of Florida's Joanne Davis in the wilds near the future Scripps site
The swamp near the future Scripps city (left) teems with wildlife, and, recently, a pair of trespassing environmentalists.
Eric Alan Barton
The swamp near the future Scripps city (left) teems with wildlife, and, recently, a pair of trespassing environmentalists.

The only thing left was to pick a location. Bush's office narrowed down potential sites, with Orlando and Palm Beach County the finalists. He told a few select local officials only that unnamed businessmen would soon visit to consider relocating. The mysterious "businessmen," Bush explained, must be given 100 acres, with another 400 acres surrounding it for other companies that would follow. On September 23, two Scripps officials arrived at Palm Beach County International Airport. Gary Hines, senior vice president of development for the Palm Beach County Business Development Board, picked them up, and, acting out the clandestine deal that it was, they introduced themselves only by their first names.

Hines drove the pair through the Palm Beach Park of Commerce and around the spacious Pratt & Whitney campus, both in the rural northern outskirts of the county. The spots were big enough, but neither had 500 connected acres. After dinner, the Scripps officials sequestered themselves for two hours in the Business Development Board's conference room. When they came out, they revealed who they were and their intentions for relocating. But they had bad news. Neither site seemed perfect. "You guys let us know if you find a better site," Hines recalls one of them saying.

The Business Development Board searched frantically for a new site. "We were very downtrodden that day," Hines says. They knew they would lose the Scripps deal if they couldn't find enough open land. At a meeting of its board of directors days later, one member suggested a stretch of farm and ranchland off North Lake Boulevard. Mecca Farms and the Vavrus Ranch were not for sale, but the directors knew all farmland has its price. As the Business Development Board suspected, the owners were willing to sell 4,000 acres for a price that would amount to $120 million.

On October 6, Scripps officials returned for a helicopter ride over the land that would keep the research facility in Palm Beach County. This time, Bush expanded the circle in the know and included some Democrats. It was a smart move, assuring they'd be on his side. In on the deal early was state Sen. Ron Klein, and the Democrat from Delray Beach immediately became a staunch proponent of the plan.

Scripps officials who took the bird's-eye tour of the property that day didn't see the inhospitable marsh and scraggly grazing land. They saw a research park and a city on the edge of the Everglades, says Weissman, the Scripps molecular biologist. "It's probably like sex," Weissman says. "Imagination does more than reality. I was also taken out to see nothing, but the idea of what's possible is so much better."

Four days later, Bush and Scripps officials made the announcement of a deal he compared to having Walt Disney and NASA choose Florida. The excitement of that day has apparently been enough so far to conceal the deal's mounting problems.

When Gov. Bush needs to drum up support for a project, he calls one of his father's old friends, economist Tony Villamil of Coral Gables. Villamil served as undersecretary of commerce under the first President Bush, has contributed thousands to Republican campaigns, and now acts as a top economic adviser to the governor. Last fall, when Gov. Bush needed public support for putting the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) headquarters in Miami, he asked Villamil to be the pitchman for the project. Villamil claimed the state would gain 89,000 new jobs with the FTAA headquarters. Unfortunately for Bush, the report was roundly criticized as an exaggeration. Even the FTAA itself admitted it would produce no more than 58,000 jobs. But the report still received wide circulation in the press, and Villamil did his job as Bush's cheerleader.

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