Johnson County Education Research Triangle has had a big economic impact, leaders say

04/23/2014 11:56 AM

04/23/2014 11:43 PM

Winning recognition as a national cancer center is a mark of pride for the University of Kansas, and one that might not have happened without help from Johnson County taxpayers.

The one-eighth-cent sales tax they agreed in 2008 to pay in perpetuity financed the KU Cancer Center’s clinical research center, part of the Johnson County Education Research Triangle.

Over breakfast Wednesday, leaders from KU, Kansas State University and Johnson County reflected on the first five years of the research triangle, the tax that built it and the impact on the county.

“It was a huge asset to us in the pursuit of (National Cancer Institute) designation,” said KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little.

The 2012 designation came with a grant of almost $7 million over five years and is expected to bring in millions more in federal grants and research money from private organizations such as the American Cancer Society. It positioned KU to be a test site for new cancer therapies.

“The clinical research center was certainly critical to that designation,” Gray-Little said.

The $19.4 million center in Fairway is one point of the triangle, along with the $23 million Business Education Technology Center at the KU Edwards Campus in Overland Park and K-State’s $29 million National Food and Animal Health Institute in Olathe.

Gray-Little arrived in Lawrence just as the tax collections began in 2009. She was struck, she said, “by this kind of commitment to public higher education by a county. I had never seen this before. It’s a sign that people in this area appreciate the value of higher education.”

The tax has generated about $15 million a year, or $75 million in the first five years. The money is divided evenly among KU, K-State and Johnson County Community College, which feeds associate-degree graduates into the bachelor programs at the Business Education Technology Center on the Edwards Campus nearby.

The tax was approved with the promise that over two decades it would pour more than a billion dollars into the county economy.

“I thought five years ago that this was an important move for the community,” said Fred Logan, who led the campaign that won voter support for the tax. “But I have to say, the sheer impact of it all has amazed me.”

Beyond the buildings and the research going on inside them, Logan pointed to the more than 245 jobs that have produced nearly $20 million a year in salaries for scientists, professors, technology professionals and administrators.

Speakers celebrating at the five-year anniversary breakfast estimated that since its launch, the research triangle, including construction, business startups, jobs, tuition and research, has made about a $240 million impact on the economy. It now is generating about $40 million a year, with only 35 percent of all the expected programs and research in place, officials said.

“We are well on our way and remain firmly committed to the long-range vision of $1.4 billion in economic county impact in this generation,” said Ed Eilert, chairman of the triangle authority.

Kirk Schulz, president at K-State, said the research triangle, paired with the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility project in Manhattan, broadens his institution’s animal health and food safety mission and will make the area a regional bioscience hub.

That’s what has happened when similar research triangles and corridors formed elsewhere in the country, said Robert Gropp, director of community programs for the American Institute of Biological Sciences in Reston, Va.

“Research triangles are a new model to leverage regional resources and we are seeing more of them sprouting up, especially in the life sciences,” Gropp said. “Life science research is moving really quickly, and not any one university is going to have all the tools and the experts.”

Where research universities are forming partnerships and “sharing the commitment and making strategic investments, you start to see spinoffs, more employment opportunities and incubation of knowledge,” he said. “I don’t have the numbers, but the economy benefits regionally.”

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