MOUNT PLEASANT -- Biotechnology firm GenPhar has laid off its 15 employees as completion of its new $33 million headquarters falls further behind schedule, said Dr. John Dong, company president and chief executive officer.
Dong said Wednesday that construction of the 50,000-square-foot project is delayed because of the town. "I just don't know how to resolve this," Dong said.
The town is inappropriately applying standards for office buildings to a scientific research facility used to manufacture vaccines, he said. Construction delays caused GenPhar to lose a $4 million contract, he said.
Lee Cave, the town building official who manages inspections and permitting, said the town is applying the international building code to the GenPhar building. Cave said that he has asked many times without success for information on where the drywall used in the exterior walls and stairwell was made. He said it's a simple matter that could be resolved with the submission of an invoice. Cave said he first requested the information more than a year ago.
"I need to know that it meets the standards prescribed in the building code. The speed at which the project moves is up to Dr. Dong. There's no way we are holding them up. I haven't heard anything from him in a month," Cave said.
Cave said he normally would not investigate drywall, but he decided to take a look at the GenPhar building when a project contractor told him he suspected the product was from China.
"That automatically tells me that it may not meet our building code requirements. That could be a huge problem. Why I don't have an answer to that problem is beyond me. It's starting to smell a little fishy," he said.
In 2009, Chinese drywall was linked to corrosion of wiring, air-conditioning units, computers, doorknobs and jewelry, along with possible health effects. Records show that at least 18.7 million pounds of imported Chinese drywall, tainted or not, came through the Port of Charleston. Problems with Chinese drywall were reported in other Southeastern states but not in South Carolina.
Dong said the material used in the walls was made in Hong Kong. He described the product as fiberglass-enhanced magnesium chloride board and said it is required by the Food and Drug Administration. "This is better than Sheetrock," he said.
Until the layoffs, GenPhar was located in a small office off Long Point Road. Many of its former employees were scientists engaged in research for production of vaccines for deadly diseases, such as Ebola and Marburg, for the Department of Defense.
The GenPhar building is two years behind schedule, Dong said. "We just don't know why we're running into this problem. The simple fact is we can't move into the building. I don't know what to do anymore."
In February, the town ordered work halted on the GenPhar building because it said the company had to hire an architect to prepare interior design plans. GenPhar is funded by private investors whom Dong has declined to name.
GenPhar would employ up to 300 people at its new facility behind The Market at Oakland shopping center on U.S. Highway 17. GenPhar vaccines for Ebola, Marburg and a combination of Ebola and Marburg proved 100 percent effective in Army animal studies, and human trials are planned in collaboration with the Army, the company has said.
While the firm would be located behind a shopping center, the operation poses no public health threat because live viruses are not used in the creation of any of the vaccines, Dong said.
The town, Charleston County and Mount Pleasant Waterworks shared the $60,000 cost for roads, water and sewer at the facility. The state provided tax breaks and job development credits. South Carolina Electric & Gas and AT&T chipped in utility tax credits.