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Elk Run finds vital niche; industry heavyweight to lead biotech

By Heather J. Carlson

Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN

When Olmsted County Commissioner Mike Podulke first heard about plans for a sprawling commercial, biobusiness and housing development along U.S. 52 known as Elk Run, he didn’t think it made sense.

Details were scant, and it wasn’t clear how the ambitious plan would be realized. Many public officials were skeptical.

Since then, Elk Run’s developer, Tower Investments, has laid out a specific market niche — clinical testing — and signed a biobusiness industry heavyweight.

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Support grows

Podulke and others now back the project because of its potential to help fuel the state’s life-science industry and bring good jobs to the area.

"(Elk Run) is still going to take a tremendous amount of public financial input, but there are rewards for it," he said.

The project has gained support from key groups, including Rochester Area Economic Development Inc. This week, Olmsted County commissioners voiced support for the project, along with state Sen. Steve Murphy, a DFLer from Red Wing. A Mayo Clinic representative is serving on an Elk Run advisory board, although the clinic "has no commitments nor any development plans for Elk Run at this time," said Mayo spokesman Adam Brase.

A major selling point for local leaders is the biotechnology center planned for the project’s biobusiness park. The nonprofit center would provide a place for organizations like Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota to do large-scale clinic testing of new products or drugs to prepare them for the market. That would fill a major void in the state’s biobusiness industry, said Dale Wahlstrom, chief executive officer of The BioBusiness Alliance of Minnesota.

"What this facility will allow us to do is to provide support to our academic institutions to allow them to keep their products locally instead of having to go somewhere else to get that next phase of work done," he said.

In addition, a major figure in the state’s biobusiness industry has agreed to head the biotechnology center. Randall Tlachac has more than 30 years experience in the field and currently serves as director of the University of Minnesota’s Molecular and Cellular Therapeutics, a center that helps develop and manufacture new medical therapies.

Doubts remain

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Some still are expressing concern about the project. Charles Gorman, owner of Gorman’s Meat Market in downtown Pine Island, said he is worried that if the city annexes the 2,300-acre project south of town, it could hurt Main Street. "As a downtown businessman, I don’t think there can be two downtowns," he said.

But Wahlstrom argues the biobusiness park will be a tremendous boost to the local and state economy, helping Minnesota compete with states such as Ohio and North Carolina.

"We’re extremely excited about this and so excited that southeast Minnesota has really stepped up to the plate and gotten behind this," he said, "because it isn’t just for you guys living there. It’s for everybody."

Elk Run

Features proposed within Elk Run’s 2,300 acres include:

  • Biobusiness park targeting bioscience/genome businesses, with 1.7 million square feet of office space.
  • 40,000-square-foot biotechnology center, with 40 employees to conduct clinical studies of new drugs.
  • 680 acres of commercial property.
  • The Falls, a 76-acre healthy-living campus that will include hiking and biking trails, a wellness lodge, assisted living and medical facilities.
  •  Residential development with 1,500 housing units.
  •  University campus, elementary school and medical clinic

For more information about Elk Run, go to Postbulletin.com/weblinks.
http://www.elkrun.info/

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