Construction was completed last July on the new, highly touted clinical research building at LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center.
One year later, only the first two floors of the four-story building are occupied, and there are no set plans to open the rest of the $25 million facility.
Construction is ongoing for Pennington’s state-funded, $12 million imaging center building, but there is no timetable to equip or utilize the facility once it is finished in February.
The nutrition and chronic disease center currently finds itself in a state of limbo after going through a decade of growth and improving state support, only to be undercut by two years of state budget cuts that sliced its operating budget dollars by nearly 20 percent.
At a time when Pennington was supposed to be hiring top new faculty and emerging as one of the state’s top research and economic development engines, the center is instead fighting to protect its core when national competitors are trying to poach its talent, Pennington officials said.
Pennington is not even running its decorative, centerpiece fountain in order to save on utility costs.
Donna Ryan, Pennington associate executive director for clinical research, said the center’s struggles are largely invisible to the general public.
“They see construction going on. The perception is everything is wonderful here,” Ryan said.
“I don’t think we want to be whiners, but we haven’t opened two floors of our clinical research building, and we’re putting off our imaging center,” she said.
One of those top “poached” scientists, Steven Smith left Pennington last year as the clinical research building was being completed to take over as the scientific director of the Burnham Medical Research Institute’s Translational Research Institute for Metabolism and Diabetes in Florida. He said the financial uncertainty and “state of limbo” were key factors in his decision to leave.
Smith said it is strange for people to come to Pennington and see a new building that is half occupied.
“It doesn’t send out a message of confidence or competence externally,” Smith said.
But Smith and others said they are confident Pennington will overcome its current bump in the road.
“I personally believe this will be a blip — a little dip — provided that people wake up and see what’s happening there,” Smith said. “It really is an extraordinary place.”
The Pennington campus on Perkins Road specializes in research and trials concerning health and chronic diseases, such as obesity and diabetes. The Center has grown to roughly 600 employees on a 234-acre campus, after being formed more than 20 years ago from a $125 million gift from oil magnate C.B. “Doc” Pennington.
When new Pennington Executive Director Steven Heymsfield was hired last April, he knew there were some budget issues, but he also thought he was walking into a period of growth for the center.
“The most reasonable assessment is, when I came, it was almost like the perfect storm,” Heymsfield said. “Basically, this was a tight year budgetarily, much tighter than I expected when I took the job.”
With worst-case scenarios of even greater budget cuts this summer avoided, Heymsfield said he feels fortunate Pennington dodged much deeper cuts this summer.
“We’re essentially flat,” he said. “It at least allows us to avoid big layoffs. But just staying the same isn’t acceptable in the world we live in.”
Looking to taxpayers
Heymsfield is optimistic that Pennington is on the verge of receiving more assistance to get back on track. The issue though is that Pennington is looking toward fickle state funds to ease the burden temporarily.
The end of the legislative session in June also is helping matters, he said, especially with regard to talks with the Gov. Bobby Jindal administration.
“Now that it’s over, I find the dialogue with the administration has really loosened up,” Heymsfield said. “Everyone is competing for limited resources, so the atmosphere is really tense (during the session).”
The same day Heymsfield’s hiring was announced last year, Jindal and the state Department of Economic Development announced a new, $10 million “challenge grant” for Pennington over five years to partner with LSU’s medical schools for clinical trials and obesity-related research. The intent of the grant is to create about 250 new science and research jobs, mostly in New Orleans with the LSU medical school, but in Shreveport as well.
But, more than a year later, none of those dollars has flowed to Pennington, partly because Heymsfield had issues with the terms of the grant, especially when it came to the job creation goals in an industry where top talent can cost top dollar.
Pennington also is seeking an additional $10 million or so from the state over the next two years to spur the hiring of faculty and researchers to fill the top two floors of the clinical research building and the Louisiana Clinical and Translational Science Center on the fourth floor.
Ryan described the money as a “bridge” for “acute recruiting needs.”
“The last thing we want to do is send the message that we can’t recruit faculty,” Ryan said. “If one thing crumbles, then the whole thing can.”
State Economic Development Secretary Stephen Moret is hesitant to discuss details, because nothing has been finalized.
“We’re working with them on a couple of new ideas,” Moret said.
But Moret emphasized there is plenty of room for optimism, as long as there is some patience.
“I think it was in the plan from the beginning that it was going to take several years to ramp up,” Moret said of the new facilities. “I’m very excited about the potential for the future growth of the center and with the new leadership.”
The research at Pennington has a big impact in fighting obesity, diabetes and other chronic diseases, Moret said, while also hopefully creating a “medical corridor” of economic development in the “specialty health care industry.”
He cited the growth of Pennington spin-off company, Esperance Pharmaceuticals, and its development of targeted, cancer-cell fighting drugs as an example of the much greater economic development Pennington can create.
Pennington officials though are more cognizant of the time element as they watch their competitors grow.
Florida, for instance, has invested more than $600 million the past few years in establishing the Burnham Medical Research Institute and The Scripps Research Institute in Florida.
Timothy Church, Pennington professor and director of its Preventive Medicine Laboratory, said he is concerned about the center’s unstable funding while others are growing.
“The nature of our business is you’re either growing or you’re dying,” Church said. “There’s no in-between. It’s a highly competitive business.
“When you’re not opening up new buildings, it’s not optimal,” he said.
Competitors like Scripps do not need to hire headhunters when they are looking to poach top scientists, Church said. “You just go to the Pennington directory.”
For instance, if Church leaves, he takes with him 30 jobs in his team and $1.5 million in grant funding, just this year.
“We have such a strong foundation,” Church said. “We’ve got what everyone’s aiming for.” It would be a “travesty” to fall back, he said.
Ryan said the goal is to grow Pennington’s overall budget to $90 million — it is about $55 million now. But the state support must jump from $13.2 million to closer to $25 million eventually. Just getting back to $16.3 million from two years ago would be nice though, she said.
“Give us $25, and we’ll turn it into $90,” Ryan said, about the ability to leverage every state dollar into additional federal and private grants.
All of these issues are evolving at the same time Pennington is about to roll out a new “re-branding” campaign.
The goal is to grow from being labeled just as a nutrition center to an overall chronic disease research facility that fights cancer and more, as well as obesity.
“The chronic diseases are the epidemic of the 21st century,” Ryan said, citing cardiovascular problems, cancer, dementia, diabetes and general aging.
“We don’t want to just be window dressing here,” she said. “We really want to make a difference in the state of Louisiana — with the people of Louisiana.”
The aim is for the “re-branding” to play a role in strengthening Pennington’s standing with lawmakers and potential donors, Heymsfield said.
“We’ve just more-or-less finished our strategic vision,” Heymsfield said. “We’re looking to improve our branding and get our message out more.”
Currently, in the clinical research center, scientists are working with paid volunteers to study the effects of various diets, exercises and much more.
The imaging center will be used to study in detail the functions and uses of specific muscle tissues and parts of the liver, the brain and much more.
The goal is to recruit at least eight new faculty the next two years, each coming with their own team and grants, Ryan said. The stated goal is to add eventually another 300 jobs through the clinical research building and the imaging center.
“There’s a lot of excellence that we’ve been able to preserve, and we’re ready to emerge,” Ryan said.