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Officials unveil new public health lab

A major new tenant has arrived in the Baltimore Science + Technology Park at Johns Hopkins: a six-story, $170 million public health research facility operated by the state.

The J. Mehsen Joseph Public Health Laboratory — which was unveiled at a ribbon-cutting ceremony Tuesday morning — was designed to make it easier for researchers to handle and prepare for public health emergencies and to keep Maryland at the forefront of medical research, officials said.

Work in the lab will include tracking diseases, monitoring environmental hazards and identifying contaminants in the food and water supply.

“There is essentially no public health challenge that we won’t be able to grapple with here in the lab,” said Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, secretary of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

“Whereas other states are cutting back, or are shuttering labs, Maryland has put together a facility that can sequence any virus, grow any bacteria, handle any environmental threat and protect people in Maryland as surely as any firehouse or police station,” Sharfstein said.

The 234,000-square-foot building on Ashland Avenue will replace Maryland’s outdated public health lab at the State Center on Preston Street. About 212 Maryland Laboratory Administration employees will relocate to the new lab when it becomes fully operational later this year.

Those researchers will collaborate with experts from Johns Hopkins University, which was one of the state’s partners on the project.

Proximity to Hopkins was one of the criteria for the new lab’s site, according to Scott Levitan, a senior vice president of the Forest City–New East Baltimore Partnership, a team of developers working on the Science + Technology Park at Johns Hopkins, a 31-acre research campus just north of the hospital.

Levitan said although Hopkins did not contribute money for the project, the institution is a crucial partner because of its existing relationships with state officials and its faculty’s expertise.

“Ideas hatched at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, just a few short steps away, will be brought to life in policy and practice right here,” said JHU President Ronald J. Daniels at Tuesday’s ceremony.

He was joined by a who’s-who crowd of government figures, including Gov. Martin O’Malley and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Hopkins officials and dozens of others.

Many speakers, including U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, lauded the project’s positive impact on the community, framing it as a major success story for the East Baltimore Development Inc. (EBDI) revitalization project.

Sharfstein called the new lab “another milestone for this community,” and Daniels said it’s a “physical testament” to O’Malley’s vision for the EBDI project, which has gained momentum in recent years after languishing during the recession.

The new lab was financed by the Maryland Economic Development Corp., a company created by the General Assembly to support capital projects. MEDCO owns the lab but leases it to the state.

The state invested $6.45 million upfront to launch the project in 2010.

The lab’s $170 million price tag includes construction and equipment. It was built by Omaha-based architecture firm HDR Inc. Other contractors include the New York-based Turner Construction Co., Columbia-based Cain Contracting Inc. and Essex Construction LLC, based in Upper Marlboro.