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The three-legged frog that ate Nutley

For the past 80 years, Nutley, NJ has been a company town.

For as long as anyone can remember, the Swiss pharmaceutical giant Hoffman-La Roche has loomed over the local landscape and served up thousands of jobs along with thousands of little blue and yellow pills.

The creator of valium and librium probably saw a spike in sales for the popular sedatives in Northern New Jersey late last month, when it sprung an announcement that, as part of its takeover of biotech behemoth Genentech, Hoffman-La Roche will be moving its U.S. headquarters from Nutley to California.

The news that the company—called ”Roche” by long-time denizens of Jersey–would rip out its deep roots in the Garden State and head for the Left Coast took everyone by surprise, apparently including New Jersey’s beleaguered governor, Jon Corzine.

Corzine’s has had a very rough time during his inaugural term in Trenton. First, he discovered that the state is in debt to the tune of $30 billion, prompting the governor to propose increasing tolls on the NJ Turnpike from $7 to $50.

Under intense criticism for negotiating a state labor pact with his then-girlfriend, a union president, Corzine responded to demands that he release his personal email messages by announcing that he would no longer use email.

This probably explains why he didn’t acknowledge our get-well message after his near-fatal car crash. Corzine, late for a meeting with radio shock jock Don Imus, instructed his state trooper driver to put the pedal to the metal. The unbelted governor went flying through the back window of his SUV during the 90-mph crash, breaking about 20 bones in the process.

To his credit, Corzine not only paid the fine for failing to wear his seatbelt, but also taped a memorable public-service ad in which he somberly intoned: ”I’m Jon Corzine and I should be dead.” Unfortunately, some Jersey political wags have reacted to Corzine’s latest menu of tax increases by suggesting the line may reappear as a bumper-sticker slogan should the governor attempt to run for re-election next year.

While he thankfully has recovered from the grievous injuries sustained in the crash, the governor’s string of bad luck continues unbroken: According to reports, Corzine and his current gal pal were in Israel when news of Roche’s defection broke. (The governor paid all the travel expenses out of his own pocket, but it wasn’t a vacation–it was a ”trade mission,” says his office).

Roche employs more than 3,000 at the Nutley complex, centered around a 10-story tower that is the biggest landmark pre-dating Giants stadium on Route 3. The Swiss drugmaker said it may keep some research facilities at the site, but the loss of all manufacturing there no doubt has local economic development officials reaching for the ”mother’s little helpers” that Roche (with an assist from the Rolling Stones) made famous.

Which brings us to the three-legged frog that ate Nutley.

The Roche complex is a big and mysterious place with a guarded fence. Sort of a Jersey-style ”Area 51” (lots of secrets and great pizza within walking distance). The activities within the fence always have spawned wildly speculative folklore. Rumor has it that one of the first operating nuclear reactors in the United States is still in use on the site, an unsettling factoid never directly confirmed or denied by the company. In the early 1970s, the buzz among local hippies was that Roche had perfected a concentrated form of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, the active ingrediant in marijuana) that could be ingested as a pill—for ”medicinal purposes,” of course—but tangible evidence of this breakthrough never appeared on the streets.

Our personal favorite is the legend of the three-legged frog, said to be a creation of genetic engineering experiments at Roche.

According to local lore, the green multiped escaped down the sewer and slowly has been metastasizing, hiding behind trees or Martha Stewart’s childhood house in Nutley. Any day (or decade) now, it will emerge from behind the Roche tower and devour Nutley in classic 1950s horror-movie chaos.

Then again, maybe it took the bus to New York and got eaten by one of the alligators in the subway.

We hope that Roche makes good on its promise to keep some research facilities in Nutley. Because, someday, a small green figure may hobble through the gates on three little crutches, looking for a familiar face.

It ain’t exactly ”Lassie Comes Home,” but for Jersey it will have to do.

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