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Fed officials plan summer visit to Flora for bio-lab session

The Madison County town of Flora is still in the running to land a $451-million bio-laboratory that will research animal diseases and other biological threats.

Flora is one of five sites vying for the project, which would create between 250 and 400 high-end jobs, according to Duane O’Neill, president of the Greater Jackson Chamber Partnership.

O’Neill, who sits on the Gulf States Bio and Agro-Defense Consortium, has been spearheading efforts to snag the lab since they began in January 2006.

“This would be huge for the whole state of Mississippi,” O’Neill said.

The lab would study diseases such as the hoof-and-mouth virus cattle contract. The disease has had a devastating impact on the livestock industry in Great Britain and pockets of the United States the past several years. Construction on the 520,000-square-foot facility would begin in 2010. Operations would begin in 2013.

“(The lab) would be like a Centers for Disease Control, except for animals,” O’Neill said. “And we’re talking a lot of high-end jobs, like research scientists.”

Preventing diseases like hoof-and-mouth is critical to maintaining a viable livestock industry, protects economic interests of farmers and ranchers and their communities and ensures the country’s food supply is safe. The Department of Homeland Security took over the management of animal disease research in 2003.

The only other facility where this type research is performed is the Plum Island Animal Disease Center in New York. There have been several accidents with viruses at that facility, driving home the need for a new facility with more modern security measures.

Officials with the Department of Homeland Security, which is overseeing site selection for the project, held a series of public meetings in the Flora area last year, and are scheduled to return in June to address those questions and reveal the findings of an environmental impact study.

The other potential locations for the lab — San Antonio, Texas, Manhattan, Kan., Athens, Ga., and Raleigh, N.C. — have developed incentive packages to lure it there. Mississippi has one ready, O’Neill said, though the specifics of it have not been released. Money from the private sector is mixed in with state funding on the proposal. Plum Island is still technically in the running for the project, though those connected to it concede that it is unlikely to be chosen. A final decision is expected in October.

In the meantime, O’Neill said his agency will continue to do everything it can to make sure the lab is in Flora.

“We continue to reach out to Central Mississippi,” he said. “If anybody would like to know more about it, we’re willing to bring our presentation to them. Every question folks have is a good one. As people learn more about it, they get more and more excited.”

Wendy Shelton, executive director of the Flora Area Chamber of Commerce,did not want to comment and referred all questions to O’Neill.

Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@ msbusiness.com .

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