University research officials are starting to get a clearer sense of what will become of the former Pfizer site near North Campus that the University purchased last year.
In the mix is expanded space for University scientists, further partnerships between private companies and public researchers, and the addition of more than 2,000 jobs over the next decade. All in all, they are plans that University officials are hoping will reshape the state’s economy and become a breeding ground for new technologies to improve people’s lives.
After approximately six months of due diligence, the University completed the purchase of the $108 million facility in mid-June. The almost 2 million-square-foot complex previously owned by Pfizer was renamed the North Campus Research Complex. The new space provided by the NCRC will help expand the University’s research capacity by about 10 percent.
In the last fiscal year, the University spent the most its ever spent on research, $1.02 billion — a harbinger for what role University officials see their research sector playing in the institution’s future.
Dr. Ora Pescovitz, executive vice president for medical affairs, said the University’s main objective in buying the site was to have a location where researchers from various disciplines could collaborate on projects that ultimately will benefit the state and beyond.
“The hope is we’ll do ground breaking investigations that will enable us to do innovations that will really have great potential for the entire state of Michigan,” Pescovitz said.
Now that University faculty have one central location to perform this broad range of research, Vice President for Research Stephen Forrest said scientists will be able to interact with each other, which will increase the potential for making big discoveries.
“We can attack much larger problems facing humanity because large problems take people with many different levels of expertise and different disciplines and with different life experiences,” he said.
During the summer, more than 200 faculty members worked together to develop plans on how to best use the 174-acre site and determine what types of research will take place in the laboratories.
Medical School Dean James Woolliscroft is leading the planning process. Now that classes have resumed, he said more faculty from different departments are becoming involved in the planning.
“It’s a whole potpourri of things that are being discussed by different committees,” Woolliscroft said.
Those committees have focused on topics that range from performing research in the neurosciences, drug discovery and health care services to logistical needs like food, transportation and Information Technology Services.
Woolliscroft said the committees are mostly determining how to best organize the space to strengthen collaboration between faculty from different schools and colleges.
“We really look at it as an opportunity to transform how we do research — to really capitalize on the tremendous breadth and depth of expertise resident in the faculty,” he said.
Site planners are also exploring ways of enhancing partnerships with private companies, other universities and the government.
Additionally, the NCRC will provide space for startup companies that evolve from University research.
Throughout the last five years, 49 such businesses have emerged, with more than 70 percent located in Michigan.
“(The NCRC) gives us the opportunity to experiment with new models that we never had the luxury of doing before,” Woolliscroft said.
Forrest said the NCRC will improve Michigan’s economy through the startups and partnerships with private businesses working with the faculty at the research complex.
“Many companies depend on commercializing the most recent and most interesting new technologies, so if we can help companies achieve market readiness with a particular innovation, that’s a business, and that business will help the economy,” Forrest said.
One of the goals is to have students participate at the site through educational programs that will include assisting scientists with their studies.
“We very much anticipate that it will be a warm and welcoming environment for students,” Pescovitz said. “I think it will be a wonderful place for innovative education to take place.”
Although it will provide more opportunities for students to participate in research, the purchase of the NCRC will hurt the city of Ann Arbor by lowering its tax base by 5 percent. The city previously received tax revenue from Pfizer, but because the University is a tax-exempt institution, it will not be required to pay taxes to the city.
In an article last December, Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje told The Michigan Daily that the city will feel the impact of losing the tax revenue.
“It’ll be a serious hit. It’ll be a long time before the serious benefits kick in,” Hieftje told the Daily. “On top of what’s going on in the economy, and then you have this happen, it’s going to make things that much harder.”
Additionally, 2,100 people lost their jobs when Pfizer closed the site in November 2008. But the University hopes to recover at least some of those jobs by hiring 2,000 to 3,000 employees during the next decade to fill faculty and staff positions.
So far, only 14 people have been hired for security, building maintenance and facility operations.
Faculty will begin occupying office spaces and using laboratories within the next few months. However, officials do not expect the facility to be fully populated until 2018.
At this point, Pescovitz said crews are still investigating whether additional renovations are necessary.
“Some of (the buildings) are pretty much in working condition, and some are going to need to be renovated to meet our individual needs,” she said.
Even though the University is the fifth largest research university in the country, administration and faculty hope the NCRC will elevate the University’s research standing.
In the future, Pescovitz said she anticipates large numbers of faculty and students will work side by side at the site, pursuing common goals.
“I would love to see the day when we would have thousands of very active people there doing innovative research,” she said.
But according to Woolliscroft, there is still much to be done before that day is reached.
“This is a story that’s unfolding as more people are involved, and as more ideas come forward and as more discussion occurs around how best to really take advantage of this opportunity,” he said.