The Texas commission charged with aiding economies hit by military base closures will spend millions for a vaccine plant in Bryan-College Station — even though the region’s military base closed nearly five decades ago.
The GreenVax vaccine program, which will be housed down the road from Gov. Rick Perry's alma mater on the Texas A&M Health Science Center campus, beat out grant applications from several communities that had far more recent base closures. It will net $4 million from the Texas Military Preparedness Commission — 80 percent of the board's biennial budget for “Defense Economic Adjustment Assistance Grants.”
The 145,000-square-foot production center, a public-private partnership financed largely by the Department of Defense’s research arm, could someday produce influenza vaccines at a rate of more than 1 billion doses a year, a fraction of the current time. The Military Preparedness Commission’s grant — $2 million to Brazos County and $2 million to the city of Bryan — will pay for construction and equipment for the facility, which will be operated by the biotech firm G-Con and aims to speed up vaccine production.
No commission members — all of whom are appointed by Perry — disagree with the merits of the vaccine project, which got a timely nudge on Thursday when federal authorities announced a nearly $2 billion makeover of the country’s medical countermeasure development. They say Project GreenVax scored high in reviews by both the commission and the governor’s staff. But some question whether the grant’s original purpose — to rebuild economies hit by base closures — has been lost.
“What they’re going to do there is on the cutting edge of this particular science; it will benefit all of mankind,” says Commissioner Loyd Neal, the Nueces County Judge. “... I guess I’m just old school. I like to help those communities that were really affected by BRAC [the Department of Defense’s Base Realignment and Closure]."
The Bryan Air Force Base, which closed in 1961, is now home to Texas A&M’s Riverside Campus. But Perry’s office says the grant fits perfectly with the recently expanded mission of the commission: to leverage Texas’ science and technology to meet current and future defense needs. And they note the money goes to the city and county, not A&M.
“Grant recipients underwent a competitive application process to ensure that these limited funds were awarded to projects that could provide the highest and best use of the funds,” says Perry spokeswoman Lucy Nashed. The project shows “significant potential for innovation in medical technology and job creation.”
The technology involved could shorten vaccine production to “a fraction of the current time,” according to a Texas A&M news release, by using “tobacco plants rather than the current egg-based vaccine technology.”
But political watchdogs question whether the project is another example of Perry’s beloved Texas A&M getting priority treatment at the hands of a commission he appointed. Last year, Perry’s office came under fire for moving $50 million from the Texas Enterprise Fund, which lawmakers had earmarked for attracting companies to Texas, into an account used for new technology programs — where it was spent on the A&M University System’s new National Center for Therapeutics Manufacturing. The grant was the largest by far from a fund that had never before been used to construct university buildings, and the inter-fund money transfer was the first of its kind.
“This is a pattern and practice — that [Perry’s office] takes funds designed to help the hardest-hit communities and moves them back over toward A&M,” says Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of the watchdog group Public Citizen’s Texas office. “It’s his alma mater, and there are a lot of folks from that community who appreciate the governor’s efforts and reward him with votes and other assistance.”
The Military Preparedness Commission, which is ultimately accountable to the governor's office, was designed in 2003 to help create jobs in communities hamstrung by base closures. During the last two legislative sessions, lawmakers expanded the purview of the commission’s grant program so that communities that have seen “expanded military missions” as a result of the BRAC process could also apply. In other words, the grants first designed to aid communities losing military installations can now, after legislative tinkering, be used to aid communities that actually gained military investment.
The A&M project qualifies as one of those on the positive side of the ledger, its biggest supporters say. In the last decade, the region and the university system have become an important research and recruitment outpost for the Department of Defense, a responsibility that has only grown in the face of statewide base closures.
With the help of the state grant, the GreenVax project "will really bring the pharmaceutical industry and manufacturing jobs to Texas, from the east and west coast and beyond,” says Joey Dunn, Bryan’s deputy city manager.
Still, some questions linger about the commission's grant selection process. A 2009 report on the Military Preparedness Commission by the state board that periodically reviews agencies and commissions found that the defense grants selection process did not “ensure fair and consistent treatment of grant applicants.” The grant review panel allowed some communities that weren’t recommended for grants to go back and amend their proposals after the fact, the review found, and then those communities were awarded money.
“I can understand some people's reluctance [to support the GreenVax proposal], because they can’t pin it to a specific city or community that was affected by BRAC,” says Commissioner Charlie Powell of San Angelo, who voted for the project. “But in a macro sense, Texas was certainly affected by BRAC. It may be a stretch, but this project affects every city that enjoys a military presence.”