RALEIGH, N.C. – In a high-stakes game of economic poker, the state of North Carolina, Wake County and the Town of Holly Springs bet millions of dollars in grants and tax credits plus 167 acres of free land in hopes of winning a big “pot” – a vaccine production plant to be built by drug giant Novartis.

The ante wasn’t cheap – a package worth some $20 million. The package tops $40 million when highway improvements and the value of community college training for a workforce to man the plant is included.

One of three players, the state of Maryland folded. An official told The Baltimore Sun that the cost of winning the Novartis facility was “too expensive” (The other player was the state of Georgia, which offered more than $60, according to The News & Observer.)

North Carolina won, with Novartis officials’ comments about the availability of a well-trained workforce backing another valuable Tar Heel state card.

Novartis Vaccines and Diagnostics, a division of Novartis, said Tuesday that it would build the plant and create as many as 350 jobs on a 167-acre spread located at the Holly Springs Business Park. Joerg Reinhardt, the chief executive officer of Novartis Vaccines & Diagnostics, said economic incentives were not the deciding factor. North Carolina’s “ace”, if you will, was work force availability, he said. Still, state and local officials assembled a comprehensive package. Also, one reason Maryland dropped out was because of the “free land” card that Holly Springs put on the table.

The Town of Holly Springs’ land deal included its decision to purchase the 167 acres from G & G Properties. The price was $7.274 million, according to the town council meeting agenda.

The town plans to “grant” the land to Novartis along with a $1 million grading allowance.

Other incentive cards in the package included a $3 million grant from the state’s One North Carolina Fund. Grants made through that program require a match from local governments.

Novartis also received a grant worth up to $6 million over 12 years through job creation tax credits if Novartis creates all the new jobs as now anticipated.

Wake County is chipping in with what County Manager David Cook described as “grant investment returns”. These are essentially rebates on property taxes paid once a facility is built. Cook estimated that Novartis would receive between $2.7-$3 million based upon the tax evaluation of the grant.

However, by far the largest incentive Novartis received for building the plant came from the federal government. This spring, Novartis and four other companies, including GlaxoSmithKline, were awarded more than $1 billion in contracts from the Department of Health and Human Services to help build production plants for influenza vaccines.

Novartis received $220 million.

Total initial cost of the plant is estimated to be $267.5 million, according to Governor Mike Easley. However, Novartis said the total investment would be as much as $700 million.

That’s quite a prize in any poker game.