The General Assembly next week takes up the matter of funding the Maryland Bioprocessing Center, a venture that could help cement the state's future as an international life sciences hub. It deserves a strong vote of confidence.
In ordinary circumstances, the money would be virtually assured. Aimed at helping companies make the leap from laboratory to marketplace, the bioprocessing center meshes perfectly with Maryland's life sciences economic-development strategy. The Schaefer administration, business and academia are all on board. Even in the throes of last year's budget extremities, the General Assembly managed to find $1.5 million to pay for initial design work.
But getting approval for the next $15 million could be more difficult. Given the state's billion-dollar deficit, some legislators are wondering if this project merits priority status.
The answer in our view is a resounding yes. This project would be supported by bond money and would have no impact on the state's general-fund deficit. And the project's potential as a jobs and revenue generator is stunning. Maryland is way ahead of the curve on the biotechnology front. It boasts more biotech firms -- 53 at last count -- than any other state except California and Massachusetts. Trouble is, few have made it out of the laboratory.
It is this shortcoming that the bioprocessing center seeks to address. It deals with what industry experts call "scale-up" -- the nitty-gritty process of readying a laboratory product for testing and, ultimately, manufacture. This is a critical gap in creating a thriving life sciences economy. The bioprocessing center, to be located on John Hopkins' Bayview campus, would help create highly skilled, high-paying technical jobs and an enhanced tax base.
With such an industry magnet in place, state economic development officials say the number of biotechnology-related jobs could zoom from about 4,000 currently to 70,000 in the next ten years. Part of this growth would come from other companies moving here to take advantage of the center, part from the expansion of enterprises already here.
Maryland doesn't have the luxury of waiting for balmier days before making such an investment. Manufacturing, the state's traditional economic development engine, is in decline. Financial services firms are in retreat. Real estate, once a big wealth-producer, is unlikely to return to its former glory.
If Maryland's legislative leaders are truly committed to economic development, new engines of growth and wealth must be found. A project with as much potential as this one cannot be dropped or pushed back for want of better economic conditions. At this point, the price of delay would be a loss of critical momentum. Even in these difficult times, funding the bioprocessing center would be a solid investment in Maryland's future.