For sale: 137,000-square-foot building with stunning views of the Catalina and Tortolita mountains through 6,500 windows.
The Texas company that built and owns the Biosphere 2 Center near Oracle announced Monday that it has formally put up for sale the 3.1-acre glass terrarium and 70 other buildings on the 140-acre campus.
"This is one of the most spectacular properties in Southern Arizona - if not the most spectacular - so we think it should attract some interest," said Christopher T. Bannon, general manager of Decisions Investment Corp. of Fort Worth, which owns Biosphere 2.
The campus, 16 miles north of Tucson in Pinal County, has more than 300,000 square feet of space including offices, classrooms, laboratories, residential housing, and a hotel and conference center. It remains open as a tourist destination, Bannon said.
"We're looking at everything from government entities, universities and private schools to church groups, resorts and spas as potential owners," he said. "We'd love to see the Biosphere 2 used as a research activity, but we know that may not be the end result."
Various people already have inquired about the campus, said Jerry A. Hawkins, vice president of CB Richard Ellis-Tucson, the commercial real estate firm engaged by Decisions Investment to help sell the property. Hawkins would not name any suitors.
The campus is part of a much larger footprint of 1,294 acres owned by Decisions Investment that company Vice President Martin Bowen has described as a "gorgeous site with a lot of potential for development" of upscale homes and/or a resort community.
Much of that acreage already is zoned for residential and commercial development.
Texas billionaire Ed Bass, president of Decisions Investment, spent more than $200 million building Biosphere 2 - so named because Earth is considered Biosphere 1 - as a self-sustaining environment for humans. Eight "biospherians" entered its sealed ecosystem in 1991 and remained for two years.
New York City's Columbia University, which signed an agreement to manage Biosphere 2 in 1996, reached a settlement with Decisions Investment in September 2003 to end its management of the center, which included a tourism element, a research element and a study-abroad element for undergraduate biology students.
Decisions Investment had sued Columbia for breach of contract, claiming the university abandoned on-site education programs, reneged on plans to hire six full-time research faculty members and scrapped plans to build a research lab.
The Texas company took over management of the campus in December 2003, getting rid of the research and study-abroad arms of the center to cut costs and focus on tourism. More than 85,000 people visited the center last year, Bannon said.
Biosphere 2 currently has about 60 employees, a number Bannon said the company would like to see increase with new ownership.
"We'd very much like to see more jobs created for the people of Pinal County out there, not less," Bannon said.
Most of Biosphere 2's employees live in southern Pinal County, an area still suffering from closures of several area mines over the last decade, said Lionel Ruiz, a Pinal County supervisor.
"Biosphere has been a really important employer in this part of the county where we depended on mines for so long," Ruiz said. "Any employment in this part of the county really helps, so I really hope they can keep it going out there."
The campus could attract a religious organization that could use its many buildings and resources but avoid paying property tax on them because of its nonprofit status, Ruiz said.
"They wouldn't be contributing in tax money like the center is in that sense, but they'd be employing people, so that would still be beneficial," he said.
While Bannon said the company hopes the buyers would find uses for the campus as it currently exists, they could potentially opt to raze its buildings.
"This is not all about the highest bidder," he said. "All things being equal, we'd certainly like to see an appropriate reuse of the Biosphere and associated buildings, but ultimately, it comes down to what the market will bear."
A local commercial real estate agent said the center could draw interest as a religious college, spa, golf resort or even a technology park.
"I think there's a market for the property, but it's going to need a good marketing package," said Ron Zimmerman, an industrial service group agent for Tucson-based Bourn Partners. "There are definitely plenty of investors out there looking for an opportunity. There is more money chasing commercial real estate than there has ever been since I've been involved with it."
"Ultimately, it comes down to what the market will bear."Christopher T. BannonDecisions Investment Corp.
By the numbers
Year Biosphere 2 opened:
Number of acres it encompasses:
Number of buildings on the Biosphere 2 campus:
Total number of acres owned by Decisions Investment Corp. at the Biosphere site:
Cost to build Biosphere 2: More than
View images of the Biosphere 2
Launch slide show