Despite Gov. Nikki Haley calling it “throwing good money after bad,” state leaders Wednesday approved the last $13.3 million to complete buildings on the University of South Carolina’s research campus, Innovista.
The seven-year-old, $144 million campus has been criticized for underachieving in luring new high-tech businesses and jobs tied to USC research conducted in Innovista.
A USC consultant defended Innovista on Wednesday, saying it “has not been as big a disaster as some” say.
However, USC officials said they did not know how much of a $61 million increase in research money generated schoolwide since 2005 came from work done at Innovista. The school said 14 Innovista-related companies currently employ about 1,000 workers, but USC did not have employment numbers for another 15 firms.
“With all due respect, what a mess,” Haley said to a USC official at Wednesday’s State Budget and Control Board meeting. “Just let us know where you see this going and what can we hope for.”
Rick Kelly, USC’s retired chief financial officer who still is helping shepherd the project, told Haley, who heads the budget board: “Innovista has not been as big a disaster as some have led us to believe. … Has there been setbacks, have there been changes in courses? Sure, there have.”
Innovista was supposed to have two buildings for USC researchers and two buildings paid for by private developers for companies attracted to USC’s research.
The research buildings were built but have taken years to complete while the school sought outside money to match state dollars. The private buildings, however, never took off due to the recession and management problems.
While justifying the request for more money to the budget board, Kelly said some of the companies that would have occupied the private-backed buildings have located in downtown Columbia – helping change the vision of Innovista from a project centered on USC’s campus to one based on the region.
In accounting for jobs generated by Innovista, the school said five insurance technology companies employ 700, while a group of nine information-technology firms tied to IT-oLogy have 300 workers.
The school also counts up to 700 workers coming to the Nephron Pharmaceuticals plant planned near Cayce under the Innovista umbrella.
USC did not include employment numbers for at least 11 hydrogen fuel-cell companies and four other startups mentioned in a roundup of businesses with Innovista ties.
“The university has built a base that complies with the statute” that created the Innovista in 2005, Kelly said. “We’re poised to do great things. I think it’s changed for the better.”
Kelly said the emphasis should have been on recruiting top researchers, not on buildings, when Innovista was introduced. Other government leaders agreed Wednesday.
“That’s probably the area that anyone can point to and say, ‘This didn’t work right,’ ” said Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom, a member of the budget board. “It’s working, but it wasn’t assembled the way we thought it was going to be assembled.”
While USC said that research funding campuswide rose to a record $227 million in 2011 from $166 million in 2005, the school could not say how much of that increase was attributable to Innovista’s five researchers.
About half of the $144 million spent on Innovista has come from state bonds – $71 million, according to USC data.
Another $17 million has come from USC’s coffers, while $22 million was from grants and $34 million came from the city of Columbia and Richland County, money used to build parking garages.
The last $13.3 million in state bond money will complete work in the Horizon Building, which houses next-generation energy and hydrogen-fuel cell research, Kelly said. Final construction also is under way at the Discovery Building, home to biomedical research.
“There were some stumbles along the way,” said Senate Finance chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence. “But part of the way through this vision, to not go forward and utilize this, to me, would be one of the greatest travesties in this state. It sounds like they’re making a midcourse correction. What we’ve got to do is give them approval and get to the finish line.”
Just before the budget board approved the final Innovista bond money, Haley said: “It does feel like we’re throwing good money after bad, but to not do it is making it worse.
“I hope that this turns out to be something that we wanted, but I think if we had to go back and say, ‘Should we have done it?’ from the beginning, I think we all would have questioned it,” she said. “Now, we just need to figure out how to make it right.”