A few blocks from Science Park, Bill Battle is still trying to get people excited.
“I’ve been trying to plug the neighborhood with biotech posters,” said Battle, president of the Newhallville Restoration Corp. “Some people pick it up, some say, ‘What the hell is this?’ It’s off-putting for some people who aren’t as well educated. I don’t think people in the neighborhood know exactly what it is yet.”
Battle is using the same signs he posted two years ago to get residents in enthused about the same cause.
But now, he believes, the timing is right.
As the future of New Haven becomes increasingly tied to the future of the biotechnology industry, many city and community leaders say the biotech boom represents a way to boost the city’s economy and bring new career and educational opportunities to New Haven’s traditionally underprivileged neighborhoods.
New Haven includes more than 17 biotech firms, most located in Science Park. With $500 million to spend now that the proposed Long Wharf mall has been shelved, city leaders have considered using the money to lure more biotech firms, which have already brought an estimated $1.1 billion to the New Haven economy.
But others are not so sure the benefits will hit all parts of New Haven.
Some leaders in Newhallville and other neighborhoods surrounding Science Park question the excitement of men like Battle, wondering about the future of an industry which relies on highly skilled workers in a city where a third of the workforce lacks a high school diploma. Instead, they fear the much-touted biotech boom will likely go the way of Science Park, intended as a job source for area residents but which ultimately left entire communities behind.
“There’s not much excitement about the next biotech growth,” Alderman Willie Greene said.
Resentment still exists in part because of the failure of Science Park, which some say failed to live to its original of providing jobs for area residents.
“Basically Science Park has been to the community a total failure,” Greene said. “It was touted when in the initial stages as something to provide jobs to the community, but very little if any jobs actually materialized. Most people from my community were responsible for maintenance and grounds because there’s no real training in any technological areas.”
Chris Reardon, of the regional workforce development board, said the problem stems largely from the high level of education needed for biotech jobs, which usually far exceeds the level of area residents.
“One would argue in a neighborhood with a poverty level like the neighborhood surrounding Science Park, you would not see a lot of people living there with Ph.D.s, so that’s a dilemma now,” Reardon said. “The important first step is to get educational support for employment in biotech. But there’s not a quick fix.”
Even with hopes for future changes to the surrounding neighborhoods, including those from a $100 million loan from the state to revitalize Science Park and the surrounding area, biotech officials acknowledge the challenge lies in part in long-standing tensions between Science Park and the area around it.
“I think the relations with the surrounding neighborhood is a problem because the people there have certain expectations of creating manufacturing support jobs and I’m not sure biotechnology creates a lot of that,” said Kevin Rakin, president and chief financial officer of Genaissance Pharmaceuticals Inc., one of area’s largest biotech firms.
“Companies don’t exist to create jobs for neighborhood people,” Rakin said. “People should get that out of their heads. If we can hire local people, great. But we are interested mostly in hiring qualified people who will work hard.”
But Battle says community relations are changing.
“The thing about Science Park is that until two years ago it was sort of like an island in the middle of a community with no real relationship,” Battle said. “We’re building, but it takes a while. After 15 years of feeling left out of the benefits, it takes a while to convince people this is different.”
Battle hopes the benefits can be realized through biotech training programs at local community colleges. Battle has been working with representatives from Gateway Community College and Genaissance to develop a curriculum to train workers for jobs as technicians. Battle wants to complete the program by the summer, educating people for positions that do not require advanced degrees.
CuraGen Corp., the area’s other leading biotech firm, currently has an arrangement with Middlesex Community College in Middletown, Conn., to hire all graduates from its two-year program to train workers in the use of lab equipment, CuraGen spokesman Mark Vincent said.
Rakin of Genaissance said he expects more jobs at basic education levels to be created as the industry develops.
“The business starts with Ph.D.s, but as the industry develops, its much more for people with bachelor’s or associate’s level degrees,” Rakin said. “We’re talking to community colleges about training technical workers, to create tomorrow’s technicians.”
But Greene believes changes need to occur on a more basic level.
“What will excite folks in this ward is when we can see children graduate prepared and not have to go to Gateway to be a fifth-year senior preparing to get into the biotech field,” Greene said.
Of course, the effects of the growing biotech industry goes far beyond job creation at the firms itself, as Battle is quick to note.
“Commercial services attaching to the industry are as important as the lab workers themselves,” Battle said. “They need restaurants to feed people, and laundries to clean their lab coats.”
To some, the current tensions around Science Park stem from the park’s tumultuous 20-year history.
Developed in 1982, the incubator was originally intended to replace some of the 20,000 jobs lost in the area when Olin Corp., a chemical corporation, left the city.
As the development grew, it drew increasing criticism for its failure to employ area residents. In 1997, only one-fifth of the 1,500 workers employed by the park’s 100 research and development companies were minorities, raising questions about Science Park’s fulfillment of its original goal.
Tensions came to a head in 1998, when a $15 million deal reached by Yale’s Office of New Haven and State Affairs to revamp buildings led to questions about whether park officials should attract small research and development firms or larger corporations to increase employment.
Further debate centered around the park’s original mission. Some argued the true commitment should be to research, rather than job creation for specific groups.
Officials say tensions have lessened since the park received a $100 million loan from the state to improve the area as well as the surrounding neighborhoods.
Biology professor Frank Ruddle, a member of Science Park’s board, said the park’s new attitude toward the neighborhood reflects a compromise.
“It’s an objective of Science Park to put up an industrial component which would hire people from neighborhoods,” Ruddle said. “We’re working on the maintenance of parks in all respects to make the park attractive to some industrial development there, especially to support jobs for neighborhood people.”
Ever hopeful, Battle believes the time for change is now.
“The time for industrial synergy with neighborhoods is about twice in a century,” Battle said. “For this I’d expect we’d have to wait until 2050 to see it again.”