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Welcome Mats Out for Stem Cell Agency

Times Staff Writer

In the market for about 17,000 square feet of prime commercial real estate?

How does a decade rent-free overlooking the 18th hole at Torrey Pines sound? Ocean view included.

Perhaps a location steps from San Francisco Bay, across from the Giants baseball park, more suits your fancy. Also gratis, of course.

Or consider the offer from Los Angeles of a private jet, or San Jose’s dangling of a 24-hour concierge, “lush fountains” and an on-site exercise facility for your workers.

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The object of all this affection: the headquarters for the state’s new stem cell agency, which by law can employ only 50 people.

This week, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine attracted Olympic-style bids from nearly a dozen cities -- with offers of thousands of free hotel rooms in some of the priciest tourist cities in the state, turnkey laboratory space, a museum exhibit, interactive plasma television screens and many other perks, large and small.

The competition underscores what many California voters believed when 59% voted to fund the work: that embryonic stem cell research might be the next big thing. The agency, with $3 billion in research grants to distribute over a decade, marks the largest investment any state has made in science.

Behind the bids is the hope “that this will really establish the community in which the institute is located as a draw for all the brainpower associated with stem cells,” said Claire Pomeroy, dean of the UC Davis Medical School who serves on the agency’s site selection subcommittee.

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Municipal pride is also involved. Eli Broad, the billionaire philanthropist who helped craft the Los Angeles bid, said landing the agency would “help change our image from what some people think is La-La Land.”

The proposals came even as the agency suffered missteps in its first three months that now leave in question how soon it will be able to distribute any of the promised $300 million a year in grants.

Although backers initially had talked about training grants going out as soon as spring, that expectation has now largely evaporated. Members of the agency’s 29-person board agree that they still have many difficult decisions to make and legal hurdles to clear before any money can flow.

But in the middle of what one board member called “growing pains” came far more upbeat news: potential opulence for the headquarters staff.

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As Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College, put it: “It’s a wonderful experience for nerds to be associated with something that a lot of people regard as dramatic and glamorous.”

Many cities spent weeks compiling the offers -- getting assistance from local chambers of commerce, graphic design firms and philanthropists. The stem cell agency said in soliciting bids that it wanted 17,000 square feet of usable office space (preferably free), 40 parking spaces, high-speed Internet access and public transportation within 45 minutes of an international airport.

There had to be nearby convention space and hotels -- all preferably “no/low cost.”

They got all that and more.

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Los Angeles guaranteed four years of free rent in a Bunker Hill tower. Also on the table: free convention space, the occasional use of a private corporate jet lent by anonymous private individuals, and $1 million of private foundation money.

Broad said the strength of the city’s bid lay in the foundation money, $250,000 of which he has donated; the city’s location between the Bay Area and San Diego; multiple world-class universities; and proximity to federal and state offices.

Even Broad, when told about San Diego’s proposed location just off the greens at Torrey Pines, said: “That’s nice.”

In that city, boosters said they had worked nearly around the clock in the days before Wednesday’s deadline to produce a glossy 58-page document, complete with a logo and page after page of enticements.

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Because the chairman, vice chairman and president of the stem cell agency all live in the Bay Area, San Diego’s supporters said they thought they had to make an offer that couldn’t be ignored.

“What we’re after and what some other locations are after is to be known as that center of research innovation globally; what’s going on in stem cells is cutting-edge,” said Joe Panetta, who heads San Diego-based Biocom, the region’s biotechnology trade group. “It’s not the 50 jobs. It’s the prestige. It’s the notoriety that goes along with it and all the tangential benefits.”

Modesty played no role for the clamoring locales.

San Diego’s proposal touted a cost of living more reasonable than that in other coastal locales and an “exceptional quality of life.”

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San Francisco’s boosters said they were offering “a great space in the perfect place.” Just in case board members didn’t agree, they offered a second location as a backup.

Sacramento talked up views of the state Capitol and the American and Sacramento rivers.

As for Los Angeles?

“No other city,” wrote Mayor James K. Hahn in his letter to the agency’s board, “embodies the future quite like Los Angeles.”

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