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GlaxoSmithKline brings new life to East Donegal Twp. site

When Wyeth shut down its vaccine plant in East Donegal Township in 2005, the blow to the local economy was devastating.

When Wyeth shut down its vaccine plant in East Donegal Township in 2005, the blow to the local economy was devastating.

“This was viewed as a regional hit,” David Nikoloff, executive director of the Economic Development Company of Lancaster County, said at the time.

But the Marietta-area plant is poised for resurgence. London-based pharmaceutical and health care giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) has pumped more than $300 million into the facility to turn it into its U.S. hub for vaccine manufacturing.

Local residents and businesses hope the facility’s resurrection and planned prominence will be a boon to the area, helping to heal the hole left by Wyeth. 

After all, people have been making vaccines on that same parcel of land above the Susquehanna River for almost 130 years.

GSK’s future home was a horse farm until it became Lancaster County Vaccine Farms in 1882.  The now-90-acre site made the first commercially produced smallpox vaccine in the world. 

The site changed hands – but not its core purpose – twice before Wyeth bought it in 1943. Wyeth employed more than 1,000 people at its peak use of the plant, whose products included flu, smallpox and polio vaccine.

The new, highly automated GSK
facility is expected to top out at around 270 employees – 180 are there now – but it’s an increase from the skeleton security crew Wyeth left behind. GSK bought the plant in 2005.

“East Donegal Township is very fortunate to have GSK in our township, and we have a   very good working relationship with them,” said Barbara Stoner, assistant township manager. “We’re fortunate someone is using a vacant building. It will generate more earned-income tax for both us and the school district.”

GSK saw the site’s history as an advantage. Officials said the existing infrastructure would reduce the time needed to bring it up to speed for high-tech vaccine manufacture, and a pool of qualified people already lived in the area.

Vaccine packaging at the 656,000-square-foot facility is expected to begin as early as April, with vaccine manufacturing following in 2010. Eventually, virtually all of the vaccines the company makes in the United States will pass through the plant.

East Donegal Township resident Tina Maag said her sister-in-law and a former sister-in-law both worked at the plant under Wyeth and were rehired by GSK.

It’s especially critical for her sister-in-law, who had been commuting from western Lancaster County’s Rheems-area to Media, in the Philadelphia suburbs, since losing her job at Wyeth, Maag said. Now she is a regulatory chemist for GSK.

“There is a lot of new potential,” Maag said. “It’s been a very positive experience so far for the community.”

Business has picked up noticeably at McCleary’s Public House in Marietta since GSK began hiring – especially at lunch hour – said pub co-owner Freddy State.

“I think its going to be very good for Marietta,” he said.

Keystone Custom Homes Inc.’s president Larry Wisdom is also pleased with the plant’s resurrection.

The Manheim Township-based company began work on its nearby Castleton development, which contains a mix of apartments, townhomes, single-family homes and retail space, before GSK’s plans for the site were known.

“It’s exactly the kind of growth company we’re building (Castleton) for,” he said of GSK.

GSK officials have said they plan to expand the plant through 2013.

“We need to get closer to our customers,” said John Picken, vice president of industrial operations for GSK in North America.

Eric Farr, who owns Marietta’s Railroad House Restaurant Bed & Breakfast, said every little bit helps, but he doubts the activities at GSK will provide much economic boost to the area.

“I would like to hope so, but I don’t think it will, the way economy is,” Farr said. “Not one business downtown is doing well … they’re surviving. That’s about it.”

It’s not a question of enough people being in the area to spend, Farr said. It’s that people aren’t willing to part with the money they have, no matter where they are.

Shares of GSK are traded on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol GSK.

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