While students were away on winter break, the University bought itself a holiday gift: the abandoned 174-acre Pfizer Inc. facility near North Campus. Overall, the $108 million acquisition is a welcome addition to the University — the Pfizer property will enhance the University’s ability to do cutting-edge research at a time when attracting innovation and jobs to the state is more important than ever. But it also comes at a cost. The deal has angered the city this university relies on — a sentiment the University needs to smooth over.

Formerly the largest private sector employer and largest taxpayer in Ann Arbor, Pfizer hit the city and the University hard when it decided to close its doors last January. For the city, the firm’s cost-cutting measure caused about 2,100 people to lose their jobs locally and about 5 percent of Ann Arbor’s tax revenue to vanish. For the University, students and researchers suddenly lost job opportunities.

During the past year, filling Pfizer’s campus with someone has been a priority. But when no other major player expressed serious interest, the University decided to step in to purchase the abandoned Pfizer building. For that, everyone should be somewhat thankful. The University plans to employ about 2,000 workers at the facility, bringing the type of highly skilled jobs to Ann Arbor that Michigan needs to reinvent its largely auto-dominated economy.

Michigan’s universities have a natural place at the forefront of Michigan’s transition, especially now that they have a relative economic advantage. Last month, Michigan State University did its part when it was awarded the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams by the Department of Energy, improving its appeal to research scientists. The University’s investment in the 30-building campus demonstrates a similar commitment. Though the use of the Pfizer labs has not yet been determined, the research potential here is impressive and will certainly aid Michigan’s efforts to recreate the economy based upon innovative, technological development.

The loser in this deal, though, is the city of Ann Arbor. Because the University doesn’t pay property taxes to the city like Pfizer used to, the city just lost its largest taxpayer with no hope of getting it back. Though the University will bring in new high-paying jobs, that’s still a $5.1 million hole the city has to fill. On top of that, the city government is already suffering from budget problems that have caused it to propose dramatic budget cuts. It’s tough not to see the University as somewhat of a vulture, here, swooping in to buy up the Pfizer facility during tough economic times.

But while the short-term picture for the city is discouraging, a tax-exempt, functional facility bringing in jobs to Ann Arbor is preferable to an abandoned one. In the long-run, the Pfizer purchase is a necessary way to improve the University’s capacity for research — important research that will allow the University and the state to compete for the top minds in the country. The Pfizer resources will attract skilled workers — and consequently, businesses — to Ann Arbor and enable it to lead the research that is vital for the state’s economic recovery.

In such a trying time for Michigan’s economy, state universities must do their part by educating the future work force and by attracting the best and the brightest to our state. The University is doing its part by turning the abandoned Pfizer facility into something that will be beneficial for the economic outlook of the entire state.

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