A planned biosciences park in southeastern Minnesota that struggled for 12 years to draw investment effectively collapsed last month when two-thirds of the 1,904-acre parcel was sold to the Prairie Island Indian Community in a $15.5 million deal.
The tribe said through a representative that it has no immediate plan for the land, but purchased it from the developer, Tower Investments of Woodland, Calif., as part of an ongoing search for parcels located a safe distance from Xcel Energy’s Prairie Island Nuclear Generating Station, which sits about 600 yards from tribal homes near Red Wing.
The sale comes after years of missed deadlines and delays on what was originally billed as a massive investment in Minnesota’s biosciences community. At times development seemed imminent, and a $1 billion venture capital fund was once rumored to be forming.
The state Department of Employment and Economic Development supported the project, as did the Department of Transportation, which built a $45 million interchange on Hwy. 52 to accommodate the thriving work and residential community envisioned there.
The land, about 30 miles from Red Wing, seemed like an ideal setting when Tower Investments first pitched the project: a beautiful stretch of property that had been an elk farm along Hwy. 52 situated between the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus and the Mayo Clinic, just minutes from Pine Island.
One theory about its demise was floated by Dale Wahlstrom, the former president and CEO of the BioBusiness Alliance of Minnesota, who told the Rochester Post-Bulletin that Tower torpedoed the project when, early on, it characterized itself as a partner with the Mayo Clinic despite having no such agreement. That damaged crucial relationships with Mayo and the U, Wahlstrom said. A Tower executive, John Pierce, refuted the idea and said Tower enjoyed good relationships with Mayo and the U.
It was the potential for Mayo’s involvement that reportedly drew the interest of a high-profile California biotech entrepreneur who was rumored to be working on a $1 billion venture capital fund to drive development. A Mayo spokesman told the Star Tribune at that time that the clinic had no formal connection to either Tower Investments or the Elk Run project, as the bioscience park was first known. The Mayo’s decision proved prescient: the entrepreneur, G. Steven Burrill, was sentenced in December to 30 months in a federal prison after pleading guilty to fraud and tax evasion in an unrelated case.
Pierce last week said the company remains committed to either residential or commercial development on the land they still own.
The city first met with representatives from the Prairie Island Indian Community in July, said Kelly Leibold, the director of the Pine Island Chamber of Commerce. The tribe has a 200-plus family waiting list of people who want to live on tribal land, she said, and that seemed to be driving the search for property.
Leibold said the city is optimistic that development will eventually take place on the remaining Tower land. “We’re a growing town,” she said.
The tribe said in a statement that its search for land goes back to the state’s decision to allow Xcel Energy to store nuclear waste at Prairie Island. Legislators at the time “expressed their support” for the tribe to purchase up to 1,500 acres within a 50-mile radius of the reservation.
The nuclear power plant and some 44 nuclear waste storage casks sit about a third of a mile from tribal homes. Worse, the amount of waste stored at Prairie Island will grow since the federal government has been unable to find a permanent home for nuclear waste. The tribe has been asking for the removal of the waste since 1994.