By Perry Backus from the Ravalli Republic
Hamilton will be the site of a new vaccine production facility.
Tonix Pharmaceuticals Holding Company announced Wednesday that it had purchased about 44 acres of land that was once part of the original Bitter Root Stock Farm from Ilona Bessenyey and her husband, Peter Van Tuyn. The property is located on the eastern edge of Hamilton.
The site is intended to become the home of a vaccine production facility and is expected to create a number of professional and support jobs. The site is large enough to accommodate expansion over time.
While construction of the facility is dependent on planning and permitting, groundbreaking could occur as early as the first quarter of 2022.
The clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company is currently working on developing potential COVID-19 vaccines. In September, it purchased a 40,000-square-foot facility in Massachusetts to house a new center focused on developing and manufacturing vaccines for clinical trials.
Both the Montana and Massachusetts facilities are intended to support its vaccine candidates.
“The COVID-19 pandemic exposed weaknesses in the U.S. domestic vaccine development and manufacturing capabilities,” said Tonix Pharmaceuticals President and Chief Executive Officer Dr. Seth Lederman. “Tonix seeks to be a leader in the re-domestication of American vaccine development and production. We believe it is critical to bring these capabilities and high-tech jobs back to the U.S. both to finish the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic and prepare for potential future pandemics.
Lederman said the company believes that COVID-19 will become endemic and people will have to co-exist with the virus. That may require a second-generation vaccine that will provide long-lasting protection.
The company’s lead vaccine candidate is based on the smallpox vaccine developed more than 200 years ago that led to the eradication of that disease.
“To manage COVID-19 in the future, we need a next generation COVID-19 vaccine that can be part of the standard childhood immunizations, like MMR for mumps, measles and rubella,” Lederman said. “We expect that such a vaccine will be a live-virus vaccine, because of the potential to provide durable protection and block forward transmission.”
Tonix will be near Hamilton’s U.S. National Institutes of Health’s Rocky Mountain Laboratories (RML), which is an internationally recognized leader in vaccine development and virology research. GlaxoSmithKline also has a vaccine manufacturing facility in Hamilton.
The new manufacturing site will be located on land designated by Ravalli County as a Target Economic Development District, which allows for tax monies generated at the site to be retained for building infrastructure inside the district.
The 400-acre TEDD — which includes the Hamilton airport — was first designated by the county in 2016. The Hamilton City Council approved the portion of the district that will include the new facility last Tuesday, which lays the groundwork for providing city water and sewer to the site.
“We’ve been saying for 14 years that everyone has to have water and sewer,” Foster said. “If you don’t have water and sewer, you can’t expect companies like this to come to your community…It’s taken a long time to put together this foundation that made this possible.”
“Hamilton really is the biotech stronghold of Montana,” Foster said. “We have more biotech critical mass right here in Hamilton than anywhere else in the state. They want to be near one another. This announcement today could absolutely lead to others in the future.”
Hamilton Mayor Dominic Farrenkopf said Tonix Pharmaceuticals’ decision to site their new facility in Hamilton is an opportunity for the community to secure “a more stable future for our local economy and attract new businesses to our area…I really think this is going to benefit Hamilton into the future.”
Ravalli County Commissioner Greg Chilcott said the TEDD has been a “great partnership between the county, City of Hamilton and local citizens. Without all of those people working together, this wouldn’t have happened. It also demonstrates why the money we spend on economic development is so valuable.”
“I think we all need to recognize Julie Foster for her passion and leadership,” Chilcott said. “She has been working on creating the TEDD for over a decade. The tenacity that she demonstrated every time there was a roadblock or hurdle is commendable.”
U.S. Senators Jon Tester and Steve Daines and Governor-elect Greg Gianforte have supported Montana’s bioscience industry. Daines said the announcement was good news for Hamilton.
“It’s great to see Montana leading in the bioscience industry,” Daines said, “which will help support Montana jobs and end our reliance on other countries for critical vaccines and prescription drugs.”
Tester echoed the sentiment: “Montanans are hard workers and I am pleased to see more manufacturing jobs come to our state. The growing bioscience industry in Montana is good for our economy and will improve our public health.
Gianforte said it is no surprise the bioscience industry is thriving in Montana.
“We have an unmatched work ethic,” Gianforte said. “We’re problem solvers. And we do it all from one of the most beautiful places in the world.”
The Bessenyey/Van Tuyn family sold the parcel to Tonix. Sterling Commercial Real Estate Advisors brokered the sale.
“As we saw in this deal, collaboration is the key to robust economic opportunity in Montana,” said Sterling CRE lead broker Matt Mellott. “Ravalli County officials, Julie Foster with the Ravalli County Economic Authority and the local seller all played critical roles in moving this project forward.”
The sale was finalized Dec. 17. The property was part of the Bitter Root Stock Farm, which was originally owned by copper baron Marcus Daly.
“Just like Marcus Daly did in the early days of Hamilton and the Bitter Root Stock Farm, the current generation of owners has always tried to keep the big picture in mind when making our decisions,” said Bessenyey, who is part of the fifth-generation family ranch. “We have worked for many years exploring and laying the foundation for a development just like this: One that combines a clean business advancing Hamilton’s bioscience strength with the opportunity for well-paying jobs.”
“Finding someone like Tonix is what made that long journey very worthwhile,” Bessenyey said.
Bessenyey’s husband, Van Tuyn, called the sale a “bulls-eye…We’re just thrilled. Ending 2020 on a high note really makes this special.”