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Trudeau Institute has been a major employer in Saranac Lake for 127 years (Photo:  Mark Kurtz)
Trudeau Institute has been a major employer in Saranac Lake for 127 years (Photo: Mark Kurtz)

Secret effort to move Trudeau Institute from Saranac Lake began in 2008

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Top executives and board members at Trudeau Institute in Saranac Lake worked in secret for more than two years in an effort to move the research laboratory to a new site in Florida. That's according to an investigation by North Country Public Radio and the Adirondack Daily Enterprise.

The relocation would have shifted more than a hundred high paying jobs from Saranac Lake, a move that state officials in New York say would have been "devastating" to the local economy. As Brian Mann reports, top officials at Trudeau also worked to keep the effort secret, even from members of the lab's own board of directors.

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Former executive director David Woodland led the effort to relocate at least part of the laboratory's operations (Photo provided)

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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Correction:  This story incorrectly stated the official titles of David Woodland and Benjamin Brewster.  Woodland served as president and director of Trudeau institute.  Brewster was vice chairman and currently serves as chairman of the board of trustees.

(Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part investigative report on the on-going crisis at Trudeau Institute, one of Saranac Lake’s most important employers. The project is a collaboration with the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, which will report the story in this afternoon's edition.  Tomorrow, Enterprise reporter and NCPR contributor Chris Knight will report on the future of Trudeau.)

By BRIAN MANN

Special to the Enterprise

SARANAC LAKE — Top executives and a small group of scientists and board members at Trudeau Institute began working aggressively and in secret to relocate the facility outside of Saranac Lake as early as 2008, according to documents leaked recently by a former employee.

The effort, led by then-Executive Director and President David Woodland with the close involvement of current Chairman to the board of trustees Benjamin Brewster, produced a tentative deal that would have moved the research laboratory to a new research park under development in Port St. Lucie, Fla.

Trudeau officials have acknowledged in the past that they undertook a planning process that included the option of relocating some or all of the laboratory’s research teams. In January 2011, the board of directors firmly rejected the idea, voting in a closed-door session in New York City to remain permanently in Saranac Lake. However, newly disclosed internal memos and a series of detailed interviews suggest that negotiations to move the laboratory went much farther than was previously disclosed.

According to Woodland, who now works for a research group in Colorado, Trudeau submitted a formal application in March 2010 to the state of Florida, hoping to secure funding to help pay for a potential move. 

“This was a document that allowed the Florida state government to start putting in place the money,” Woodland said. He noted that a consortium of philanthropists, scientists, state and local officials in Florida were expected to put together an incentive package worth roughly $88 million, in an effort to woo the Institute away from Saranac Lake. 

Trudeau documents, many of them stamped “confidential,” indicate that Woodland, Brewster and others involved in the project were proposing to bring at least “187 high-quality, high-paying jobs” to Florida by December 2011. Currently, Trudeau employs roughly 100 people. Woodland said he became convinced early in his tenure as the institute’s director that Saranac Lake was no longer a viable location for a modern, top-tier research facility because of its remoteness from major universities, hospitals and other bio-research facilities.

While courting possible partners, in Florida and later in other states, Trudeau executives also worked carefully to keep their efforts secret from the public, from government officials in New York who directed state and federal funds to the institute, and from most of Trudeau’s own board. One unsigned memo urged that no information be provided to “the wider board of trustees” until it was certain that Florida would make “an offer to relocate.”

During an extensive interview, Woodland acknowledged that many board members were kept in the dark, even after negotiations had been under way for at least two years.

“There was a decision from a fraction of the board not to tell the full board,” he confirmed. “There was clearly a long time delay from the executive committee knowing and them informing the rest of the board.” 

That secrecy was maintained even after Woodland and Brewster led an eight-person delegation — three executives and five board members — to Florida in May 2010. According to an agenda outlining details of the trip, Trudeau officials held extensive talks with Port St. Lucie’s city manager, local businessmen and philanthropists, as well as top economic development officials to discuss the “status of Florida funding.” Contacted for this story, Larry Pelton, president of the Economic Development Council of St. Lucie County, declined to comment because he said there was “a confidentiality agreement” between his organization and Trudeau Institute.

A month later in June 2010, Brewster — who would not become president of the board until that August — sent a confidential memo to other members of the executive team, encouraging them to consider the pros and cons of a rapid relocation of at least part of Trudeau’s operations to Florida. He raised once again the question of how long the process should be kept secret. 

“The committee should consider how it will proceed with communicating with the full board,” he wrote. 

According to Woodland, the process was kept under wraps because of fears that some board members loyal to the Saranac Lake location might “kill” the Florida plan without first considering it thoroughly. One of the leaked memos also argued that “the mere idea that the institute might consider relocating to Florida poses considerable risk in terms of faculty and staff stability.” During the interview, Woodland acknowledged feeling “discomfort” with the long delay in informing Trudeau’s wider community, adding “it wasn’t my decision to make.”

In a separate interview, Brewster, who took over leadership of Trudeau Institute in 2010, said the full board was made aware of the negotiations “when we had something to talk about. Certain members of the board, the executive committee had talked it over, and clearly it was brought to the (full) board at what was, we thought, the appropriate time.”

It appears that many top scientists at the facility, whose careers would have been dramatically impacted by a move, were also kept out of the loop. Larry Johnson, a researcher who is now part of Trudeau’s interim management team, said he wasn’t told of the Florida talks until early 2011.

“The simple answer is no. I wasn’t (informed),” Johnson said. 

The search for a new location began even as Trudeau was finishing work on the new $9.6 million dollar Ronald B. Stafford wing of the research facility in Saranac Lake.  The state-of-the-art 10,000 square foot lab was built in large measure using taxpayer dollars. Contacted for this story, state and local officials in New York were shocked to learn that efforts to move Trudeau began so early and came so close to fruition. 

“I didn’t know at the time that they were looking elsewhere, and I’m sure Sen. Stafford didn’t know it either,” said state Sen. Betty Little (R-Queensbury), who added that the proposed move would have been “devastating” to the Saranac Lake economy.

“I knew that they were working aggressively to relocate, but not as early as 2008,” said Saranac Lake Mayor Clyde Rabideau, who was elected in 2010 and has campaigned to develop the village as a biotech research hub, with Trudeau at its center. “I did not know that at all. There is no question in my mind that there was a strong possibility that Trudeau would pull up stakes.” 

The institute has been one of the Tri-Lakes region’s top private employers for 128 years and is also a key cultural landmark in the village. It was first established by pioneering tuberculosis researcher and physician Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau, who also served as the village’s first mayor. Rumors that the laboratory might depart began to circulate in 2010, triggered in part by a memo Woodland distributed to staff, suggesting that they not purchase homes or make other long-term commitments in the village. 

In November 2010, Rabideau sent a letter to the Enterprise, warning that the laboratory “might leave us” and describing the possibility as “unthinkable.” His alarm triggered a public firestorm, as community leaders and public officials — including U.S. senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer — scrambled to convince Trudeau officials to stay. Two months later, the board moved to quell the controversy, voting to remain in the village and issuing a strongly worded statement that they were “committed to staying in Saranac Lake.”

In the weeks that followed, Woodland stated publicly that he was “thrilled” with the decision and expressed confidence that the laboratory had a promising future in its current location. But he departed abruptly six months later and now acknowledges that he felt that Trudeau’s board made a serious mistake in not pursuing opportunities to relocate, and in limiting his own ability to transform the institute. According to Woodland, the best option would have been to move most of the research teams while maintaining animal testing facilities in Saranac Lake. 

“We would have this two-pronged approach, and the two would work together and synergize and be a very, very strong unit,” Woodland said, though he also noted that a consultant’s report on Trudeau’s future concluded that “we should probably relocate completely.”

Indeed, it remains unclear whether the idea of maintaining two “sister” facilities was seriously considered, by Trudeau executives or by investors and public officials developing the research park in Florida. Several sources at the institute, speaking on condition of anonymity, said maintaining two laboratories at separate sites would have been unwieldy and expensive. One of the leaked memos also suggests that the possibility of retaining a facility in Saranac Lake might be raised as a public relations message, to help quell criticism if news of the planned move leaked prematurely.

What is clear, however, is that a growing number of scientists within Trudeau came to share Woodland’s conviction that Saranac Lake was no longer an attractive location for a modern, top-tier research laboratory. In a memo written in March 2010, Ralph Steinman, then a leading member of Trudeau’s scientific advisory panel, argued that the Florida venture “would provide the Institute with an immediate pathway to immediately solving its infrastructure challenges, providing a pathway to the growth that is essential for its long-term survival.” (Steinman, a Nobel Prize winner, passed away last year.)

Speaking by telephone from Colorado, Woodland insisted that his efforts to relocate at least part of Trudeau’s operations, and the public furor that followed, were not to blame for the laboratory’s reversal of fortune in recent months, as the Institute faced budgets cuts, layoffs and the departure of key research teams. He argued that it was clear internally “years ago” that in its current form, “Trudeau is not sustainable.” 

Still, he acknowledged that keeping the Florida negotiations secret for so long alienated board members, staff and community leaders, contributing to deep discord that still plagues the institute.  “One can second-guess that (decision) absolutely,” he said.

Enterprise Senior Staff Writer Chris Knight contributed to this report.

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