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Fri November 13, 2009

Animal Health Corridor Eager For Development

If you feed your dog Science Diet or protect him with the flea and tick control Advantix, you’re using products made in the Animal Health Corridor.

The House of Representatives recently recognized the Corridor as an economic development zone between Kansas City, Manhattan, Kan. and Columbia, Mo.

Already more than 200 animal health and related companies are located in the area, generating almost two-thirds of the industry’s sales. Now, elected officials, academics and business leaders are collaborating to build on the success and create economic sustainability into the future.

The Corridor's Royal Origins

The American Royal turns 110 this year. It began as a hereford show under a tent in the Kansas City Stockyards.

Today the Livestock Show attracts thousands of owners, breeders and agricultural businesses. The Royal, now a business itself, says a quarter of a million people come to its events each fall.

Even if the American Royal is more professional today, it still represents our agricultural roots , says Harry Cleberg, a retired farmer and farm industry executive. And the so-called “Animal Health Corridor?" Cleberg says it’s a direct descendent of the Royal.

"Purebred breeders would bring animals in. They’d select animals to improve the genetics of the particular breeds. It was basically animal genetics of 110 years ago, quite different than embryo transplants of today,” Cleberg said.

The Corridor's Future In Kansas

If the American Royal represents animal science of the past, today’s groundbreaking on a windy plot of land adjacent to the strip malls and subdivisions of western Olathe represents its future.

Wearing purple hardhats for the K-State Wildcats, the president of K-State, elected officials and business leaders grab shiny new shovels and turn over some soil. They’re initiating work on the National Animal Health and Food Safety Institute, the first brick-and-mortar of the Olathe Innovation Campus, an extension of K-State and a flagship of the Animal Health Corridor.

The Campus is funded in part by a 1/8-cent sales tax Johnson County voters approved last year and in part by the Kansas Bioscience Authority. That’s a $581-million public-private initiative enacted in 2004 by the Kan. legislature. The city of Olathe donated 90 acres of land.

Dan Richardson, CEO of the Olathe Campus, says bringing the top-notch K- State scientists closer to the commercial center of animal health will attract more researchers, companies and ultimately more jobs. In fact, officials project an additional 3,000 jobs over the next ten to 15 years.

“It is truly an economic boon," Richardson said. "People are going to want to know what's going on here and be part of it."

Obstacles And Opportunities

That’s where Bayer Animal Health comes in. Bayer was one of the charter members of the Corridor.

As he ambled down the quiet company halls lined with photos of employees and their pets, spokesman Bob Walker said the Animal Health Corridor is an opportunity to expand and attract talent.

The launch of the AHC has not been without bumps. Just last month, Pfizer announced it would move its subsidiary, Fort Dodge Animal Health, from Overland Park, Kan., to its headquarters in Madison, New Jersey, possibly taking 200 jobs with it.

Officials with the Kansas Bioscience Authority took some flack for committing $50 million to eight venture capital firms without the guarantee that those firms would invest in Kansas.

And the jewel of the Animal Health Corridor, a $600-million federal, high-security laboratory awarded to K-State, known as the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, has been put on hold while Congress investigates its safety.

Economic analyst Tad DeHaven refers to it as “press release economics.” When DeHaven was with the Indiana Governor’s office he saw a number of these ambitious public-private partnerships fail. As an analyst for the conservative Cato Institute, he warns projects like these can often put taxpayers at risk.

“The business community gets free money. If it pans out they make money. If not, the burden falls to taxpayers,” DeHaven said. “For elected officials , it’s a wonderful opportunity to have ribbon cuttings. That way they can say to their voters they are doing something.”

Regardless of its critics, the creative breadth of the Animal Health Corridor has inspired hope, not only for potential economic development, but also because much of the research could apply to humans as well as animals. Supporters also hope the Corridor represents a collective effort to celebrate the region’s agrarian past as well as create economic security to carry it into the future.

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