San Diego Business Journal

Like a couple of thoroughbreds sprinting toward the finish line at the Del Mar racetrack, the statewide competition to land the headquarters of California's new stem cell institute is hitting the final stretch.

In the next two weeks, San Diego officials will learn whether their city has won a highly publicized, often contentious contest to become the permanent site of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, a voter-approved initiative that will fund $3 billion in embryonic stem cell research grants.

The institute is expected to bring 50 jobs and international scientific acclaim to the winning community.

The institute announced four finalists this month. San Francisco was ranked first, Sacramento second, San Diego third, and Emeryville , currently the temporary headquarters site , fourth.

Those cities will be narrowed down to two on May 2, with a winner announced on May 6.

On April 25, members of the institute's site selection committee are scheduled to meet at UC San Francisco to decide whether to accept preliminary evaluations of the four cities based on an incentive-laden scoring system that has been roundly criticized. They'll also be looking at the criteria to be used to further evaluate the cities during upcoming site visits.

The 7-9 a.m. meeting will be telecast at La Jolla's Burnham Institute and is open to the public. Among those participating locally will be Dr. John Reed, the president and chief executive of La Jolla's Burnham Institute and a member of the site selection committee.

Richard Murphy, the president and chief executive of La Jolla's Salk Institute, is also a member of the site selection committee.

On April 29, members of the committee plan to visit San Francisco's proposed site. The committee is set to visit Emeryville and Sacramento on April 30.

Members of the site selection committee are scheduled to tour the facility that San Diego has offered , a building in the Torrey Pines Science Park , on May 1.

The site is near Torrey Pines Mesa's rich cluster of innovation, which includes the Salk Institute, Burnham Institute, Scripps Research Institute and UC San Diego.

"We want to show them the facility tour them through the Torrey Pines area, which makes such a strong impact on the concentration of life sciences," said Julie Meier Wright, the president and chief executive of the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp.

"It'll show them why our proposal is so strong."

Last week, Wright sent a letter to the stem cell institute, criticizing the way San Diego was evaluated and ranked.

Wright said she would like to see more weight placed on the site selection committee's evaluation during the upcoming visits.

"The RFP (request for proposal) was focused on the facility, lease cost, airport, transportation system and hotels , and the visits should focus on those things," Wright said in an April 21 interview.

In her letter to the institute, Wright recommended doubling the value of scores from 60 to 120 points to "allow the site search subcommittee to allocate more value to the merits of the alternative sites as seen in person."

Wright wasn't the only official to criticize the evaluation method. City officials in Sacramento, Emeryville and San Francisco all sent letters to the stem cell institute last week.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom said his city was "proud to have received the highest ranking in the initial scoring," but believes it should have received an even higher score.

Said Wright, "This is a very intense competition."

It's also been rife with politics.

On April 20, the Bay Area Council and the Bay Area Economic Forum issued a press release calling on Reed of the Burnham Institute to "clarify and retract his statements to the media in support of San Diego, violating appearances of impartiality," or resign from the committee.

The Bay Area organizations cited Reed's recent comments in support of San Diego as reported in the San Diego Business Journal, North County Times and San Francisco Examiner.

In an April 18 article in the San Diego Business Journal, Reed said: "San Diego is a walk in the park compared to the traffic issue (in the Bay Area)."

He also said he'll lobby committee members to reconsider San Diego's high quality of living, sunny climate and broad range of recreational opportunities.
In a telephone interview April 20, Reed said he did not use the word "lobby" in discussions with a Business Journal reporter.

"I don't recall using the word lobby in our discussions in the context of this committee. I look forward to establishing the criteria by which all of the sites will be evaluated in as quantitative and objective a manner as possible.

"I would never attempt to lobby members of the ICOC (Independent Citizens' Oversight Committee) on the site selection or any other matter. Any remarks that I made to the press were simply expressing my personal thoughts and were not intended to be representative of the site selection subcommittee or of the ICOC."

In their press release, the two Bay Area groups called on Reed to "halt his pro-San Diego educational campaign of other members of the site selection committee."

"If Dr. Reed refuses to retract his statements, the leaders of the Council and the Economic Forum requested Dr. Reed remove himself from the site selection process," the Bay Area Council and Bay Area Economic Forum said.

"At the very least, Dr. Reed's actions are inappropriate," said Jim Wunderman, the president and chief executive of the Bay Area Council, in the release.

"Dr. Reed should step aside if he can't stay within the parameters of the process , one which has proven itself to work well and one which he helped develop.

"It is possible that Dr. Reed is unknowingly violating state law relating to open meetings," Wunderman said.

Said Reed, "I don't think I am in violation of anything."

Reed said the Burnham Institute will not issue a formal statement in response to the press release from the Bay Area groups.

The California Institute of Regenerative Medicine declined to comment on Reed specifically.

"We believe in the integrity of this process and the members of this subcommittee and we look forward to moving forward with the site visits," said Nicole Pagano, a spokeswoman for the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine.