Editor’s note: BioWatch is a regular feature on Fridays.The state legislature has offered Merck $24 million to buy and develop land in Durham for a vaccine manufacturing plant. This represents a milestone for proponents of luring more biotech facilities to NC.

Merck is the first beneficiary of the Life Sciences Revenue Bond Authority (LSRBA) that the General Assembly created Wednesday.

“Obviously we’re pleased at the outcome, which will help to make an expansion of the company’s presence in North Carolina attractive,” said John Bloomfield, a spokesman for Merck, in an interview with The Herald-Sun of Durham. He said a recommendation to build on the site in Treyburn Corporate Park would now be made to senior management.

The LSRBA adds the final piece to the stimulation package sought by the biotech industry, its lobbying group and proponents in NC.

LSRBA will offer substantial, multi-million dollar help covering initial building costs to any biotech company that invests at least $100 million and creates 100 jobs. Proponents see biotech as a way to replace lost manufacturing jobs in textiles, furniture, and tobacco industries.

Merck plans to spend up to $300 million on the vaccine plant and employ up to 200. The facility, expected to open in 2008, will make vaccines for mumps, measles and rubella. Merck also gets a rebate on all construction-related sales taxes as part of the deal.

Other biotech companies with projects meeting the state’s guidelines are eligible for similar subsidies.

Earlier this year, the Golden Leaf Foundation agreed to fund the $60 million biomanufacturing training program sought by NC BIO and other proponents of increasing NC’s ability to draw biomanufacturing facilities and their high-paying jobs to the state. That was the first cog in the wheel of biotech incentives sought by the industry’s boosters.

Dr. Charles Hamner, retired head of the NC Biotech Center, is often credited with being the chief architect of the state’s current enviable position in biotech. When Golden Leaf announced funding the training center program, Hamner told Local Tech Wire the state still needed the bond authority to put the finishing touches on its incentives package.

With that addition, he said, NC has an unparalleled approach to becoming the U.S. biomanufacturing center, which it has a head start on already, with several large facilities located statewide.

Although the state’s focus on attracting biotech manufacturing plants is not without critics, other regions have spent substantial sums to study how NC created a biotech hub in the Research Triangle. Sweden, India, and other U.S. states and regions have published reports outlining how NC became a biotech hub ranked fourth or fifth nationally, depending on how they do the ranking.

North Carolina is far from the only state trying to lure biotech operations. Michigan, Pennsylvania, among many others, have committed tens of millions and more to biotech incentives of various types the last few years.

Georgia targets biotech, too

Georgia is taking steps to expand the biotech industry there as well. The latest move came Thursday when Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue disclosed the state was making a $2.5 million grant to build a new headquarters and research facility.

The grant will be administered through the Georgia Department of Community Affairs.

“This bioscience research facility pilot program meets Inhibitex’s immediate needs to further establish, grow and support research facilities and other capital projects,” said Mike Cassidy, president of the Georgia Research Alliance, according to The Atlanta Business Chronicle. “This project will allow Georgia to stay on the cutting edge of innovation.”