Manhattan — Now that the Department of Homeland Security has decided it wants to build its top-level biosecurity lab in Kansas, the next step is securing funding for the $450 million facility, state leaders said Thursday.
“I have no doubt that this will be funded,” said U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan. “This is a national priority.”
At a news conference, state officials said construction and operation of the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility makes sense on several levels.
First, they said, it is needed to protect the nation’s food supply from either an accidental disease outbreak or bioterrorist event; and secondly, as the economy struggles, it represents the kind of public works project that provides an economic shot in the arm.
The lab, which is proposed to be built on the Kansas State University campus, will require 1,500 construction workers and is expected to bring hundreds of scientists to the area when completed in four or five years. More than that, however, officials say it will spin off more private companies along the animal health science corridor.
“With this decision, it cements the corridor between Kansas City, Lawrence and Manhattan as the Silicon Valley” of animal research, Lt. Gov. Mark Parkinson said.
The new lab would replace an aging facility on Plum Island, N.Y.
Under the DHS proposal, the lab would be used primarily to protect against animal diseases by conducting research on deadly pathogens, such as foot and mouth disease, Rift Valley fever and Hendra and Nipah viruses.
Kansas State President Jon Wefald said he thought the project would cause Manhattan’s population to double within 20 years. He described NBAF coming to Kansas as a “transformational event” that “will go down in history as one of Kansas’ finest hours, period, amen and good night.”
But as Gov. Kathleen Sebelius pointed out, the heavy lifting to get the money now begins.
“This is not the end of the process,” she said. Washington D.C., she noted, “operates on a political dynamic.”
Sebelius, who is close to both President-elect Barack Obama and Gov. Janet Napolitano, whom Obama has selected to be secretary of Homeland Security, said, “I don’t have any problem in pushing Janet to make sure this stays in Kansas. This is a national security priority.”
U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Goddard, who is a member of the House Appropriations Committee, said he has already had substantive conversations with U.S. Rep. David Price, D-N.C., who is the chairman of the appropriations subcommittee on Homeland Security, about funding the project.
“The issue is how much do we get up front to get this facility sooner rather than later,” Tiahrt said.
The arguments for an aggressive funding schedule are sound because “bioterrorism is a very real threat,” he said.
Kansas beat out sites in Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina and Texas.
Officials said the Kansas site was preferred because of many factors, including the state’s offer of a $105 million bond package to help develop the project.
The site’s other strengths included proximity to existing research capabilities, such as the new Biosecurity Research Institute, and the availability of a work force “relevant to the NBAF mission” because of the link to the KSU College of Veterinary Medicine, College of Agriculture and Bioscience Research Institute.
The choice is not final until sometime after a 30-day period for comments. Officials in several of the losing states have said they may appeal.
Roberts said he understood their feelings, but said he was confident Kansas would prevail.
“The merits are on our side and always have been,” he said.