Thursday, June 09, 2011

Why Wye? Part II: The Biotech Bust

Biotechnology. Anyone who has doubts about the development of Wye Mills is meant to be placated by that little-understood, but much-used word. Like a sweet lullaby, the mere mention of biotechnology is supposed to make Wye Mills skeptics sleep easy.

You see, the commercial development in Wye Mills is going to look different from the development every place else; it is going to be innocuous, barely noticeable, one might even say it will be additive to the rural landscape. Where the growth on Kent Island is offensive to the eye (and much else besides), development around Wye Mills is going to be bucolic.

Like a slick advertising campaign, the Wye Mills development plan comes across just a little too good to be true. But the sales pitch isn't being given by slick advertisers, but rather the same old 'any growth is good growth' crowd that now seems to have the ear of a majority of the Queen Anne's County Board of Commissioners. It's the folks that stand to make a buck or two when the bulldozers throttle up, and who tend not to concern themselves much beyond their own bottom lines.

They know their growth for growth's sake vision for the county won't sell to the general public, so they wrap it in buzzwords like "sustainable," "campus-setting," "the right kind of growth," even biotechnology has become a buzzword, offered up as a sort of fail proof economic savior for the county. There is a sporting chance that these advocates for growth at any cost don't even know what biotechnology means, they just know it sounds better, sounds higher-paying, sounds more fundamentally agreeable than just plain old growth.

The only problem is, the biotechnology idea requires an uncomfortably high level of faith. Queen Anne's County is not a biotechnology hot spot; in fact, there are several biotech centers on the Western Shore and in Delaware that Queen Anne's County's nascent biotech industry will have to compete with as it gets started. It is unlikely that Queen Anne's County currently has the human resources that such a facility would require, making the county something less than attractive to prospective biotech start-ups, who will not be interested in paying for employee relocation.

There is also the little matter that the biotech bubble, to which Queen Anne's County is not the first to hook it's Pollyannish economic dreams , has largely burst. An article from just a few months ago (link at the end of the blog) details the investment that the state of Florida put into a biotech center in a rural part of the state, to the tune of a billion and a half dollars. The biotech facility created 1100 jobs, or more than a million bucks per employee. Hardly the economic engine anyone predicted, rather a wasteful taxpayer funded jobs program. $1.5 billion is more than a decade of Queen Anne's County's total spending, and no one from the state government seems inclined to invest in this biotech pipe dream.

As good intentioned as the County Commissioners might be, and that is perhaps a debate for another blog post, they will not be the ones developing the Wye Mills parcels. All that the commissioners can realistically do is rezone the acres from agriculture to a more commercial designation; once that is done, the commissioners role in the development is largely over. And despite all the flowery language and "sustainable" growth talking points, it will quickly become apparent that biotechnology was the spoonful of sugar meant to help get the Castor oil of growth down the public throat.

The result of all this is that the development of still-rural Wye Mills will look just like the development of once-rural Kent Island. Fast food, gas stations, and other quick stop retail establishments for the reach-the-beach traffic will dominate; the kind of growth whose benefits to the citizens of Queen Anne's County never seem to catch up to the costs. By the time we realize we've had the wool pulled over our eyes, it will be decidedly too late, and Wye Mills will be nothing more than a congested intersection of redundant commercialism.

Link to the Florida biotech article:

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