By Tom Still

MADISON – It has all the makings of a Hollywood hit… a mysterious drug company… money… local heroes trying to do what’s right for their community… even a “leading lady” of sorts.

But it’s not “The Constant Gardener,” the film that won a Best Supporting Actress award this week for Rachel Weisz. Rather, it is the true-to-life story of how Abbott Laboratories Inc., one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical firms, is planting a flag in Wisconsin.


No one knows for certain yet what Abbott plans to do with the nearly 500 acres it purchased in Kenosha County in Wisconsin’s far southeast corner, but expectations are high it will add jobs – perhaps 2,400 jobs – in a part of the state that could always use the extra payroll.


Abbott has consistently been mum on its plans, but the size of the land acquisition suggests it will eventually amount to more than a research lab and a few guys wearing white coats. The site, located in the northwest quadrant of the I-94/Highway Q interchange in the village of Pleasant Prairie, is large enough to hold offices and manufacturing facilities that employ thousands of people. It’s the hope that kind of investment will materialize that persuaded state government to loan $12.5 million to the Kenosha Area Business Alliance to help move the project along.


Note: That’s the Kenosha Area Business Alliance receiving the loan, not Abbott, which earned $3.4 billion on global sales of $22.3 billion in 2005. If anything, Abbott could float the state a few bills. But the money is intended to help the community accommodate the growth, rather than help Abbott pay for whatever it intends to build.


The loan from the state Department of Commerce is a “forgivable” loan – meaning, it won’t have to be repaid by the quasi-public Kenosha group – if Abbott creates as many as 2,400 jobs. While that’s something of a gamble, the state would be repaid if Abbott doesn’t follow through, and it stands to reap significant benefits if it does.


“Commerce has been working with Abbott for over a year to identify a suitable site large enough for a potential Abbott campus,” said Commerce Secretary Mary Burke, who joined Gov. Jim Doyle’s administration after a successful career with Trek Bicycles. “We’re delighted they have completed their acquisition of nearly 500 acres and are proud to support this project.”


In a way, Abbott’s toehold in Wisconsin isn’t a giant leap. The Kenosha site is only about 20 miles north of its North Chicago headquarters, and 14,000 of its 60,000 worldwide employees already work in Lake County, which is just across the border. Many of those workers live in the Kenosha area and travel back and forth every day, generating economic activity.

Still, the addition of Abbott is significant in other ways. The state’s biotechnology industry has long enjoyed most of the ingredients for success – a world-class research base, solid diagnostic and therapeutic technologies, and promising start-up companies. It has never been “home” to a major pharmaceutical company, however. Even though it’s a relative short step across the border, it’s a large step for the state’s biotech industry in terms of its connections to the global marketplace.


Other pharmaceuticals are already paying increasing attention to Wisconsin as a place to mine good ideas and do business. GlaxoSmithKline, Fujisawa North America, Takeda and Eli Lilly are among the firms that have shown varying degrees of interest in Wisconsin’s base of research, tech transfer abilities and overall business climate.


The Abbott land buy is significant for another reason: It represents an investment in “the knowledge economy.” At a time when some traditional industries are downsizing or even pulling back, Wisconsin has the chance to attract investment from a company that could employ the state’s sharpest 21st century tools – science, technology and skilled workers. Once a declining symbol of the “Rust Belt,” Kenosha could become an emerging star in a Midwest “Bio Belt.”


The local leaders and state officials who helped pull together the Abbott loan have a long way to go before someone is turning a shovel full of dirt in Kenosha County, but the future looks promising. Hold your applause to the end, but this movie could have a happy ending.


Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the WisconsinState Journal in Madison.