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BOG gives thumbs up to downtown med school


With unanimous approval from the Florida Board of Governors (BOG), it seems that no one is getting in the way of a USF medical school in downtown Tampa.

Though the BOG delayed a decision last month, university officials charmed the board when presenting the benefits of bringing the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine and USF Health Heart Institute to downtown Tampa.

“The tone today was much different, and I think it is directly attributable to the enormous amount of work and communication that’s taken place over the last 30 days,” said USF Board of Trustees Chairman Harold Mullis in a media conference call. “Today was a night-and-day difference, and it was all about hard work.”

When USF proposed the project last month during the year’s first BOG meeting, some board members said they had never heard of the plan and demanded the university come back in a month with a detailed presentation. 

On Thursday, the university handed board members a 130-page business plan and presented a 45-minute PowerPoint. 

University officials argued the new building location would make USF more likely to receive federal research dollars from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which would save the state money. 

Presenters also pointed out that USF, ranked 63rd of NIH-funded medical schools, is the only school in the top 100 that is more than 25 minutes away from its teaching affiliate. 

Tampa General Hospital would only be a few miles away from the proposed medical school location on Channelside Drive and Meridian Avenue.

“The downtown strategy is fundamental to the overall strategy for research to drive us from 63rd in funding to the top quartile,” said USF Board of Trustees Vice Chairman Brian Lamb during the presentation. 

USF could get $28 million in federal funding in less than five years, Lamb predicted, with a downtown medical building. 

Presenters also argued that talented medical students and faculty from all over the world would be more attracted to an urban environment within close proximity to a major hospital.

“This new facility will be state of the art and allow us to compete nationally and internationally for talent for students and for faculty,” Lamb said.

After the presentation, the BOG asked no questions before unanimously approving the project.

The approval was met with delight not just from USF officials, but from those in the Tampa community as well, such as Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn. 

“We now know that we are the vast majority of the way there to moving that medical school downtown,” Buckhorn said to the Tampa Tribune. “For us it is probably the most significant event that has occurred in the urban core in the last 20 years. I couldn’t be more excited about it.”

The 12-story medical building is part of Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik’s billion-dollar plan to revitalize large sections of the downtown area. 

“We look forward to making the Morsani College of Medicine and the accompanying heart institute one of the major anchors in our development district,” Vinik said in a statement. “We envision and embrace the vibrancy that USF and its students, faculty and staff will bring to downtown Tampa. This marks a great step forward.”

The call for a medical school downtown began in October when Vinik offered to donate an acre on the empty corner of Channelside Drive and Meridian Avenue, less than a mile away from Amalie Arena where the Lightning play. 

The plans are contingent upon the College of Medicine and Health Heart Institute combining into one 12-story building with floors for dining, classrooms, laboratories, a library and a clinic. The project would also feature a medical office and parking garage across the street, able to fit an estimated 1,750 vehicles.

With Vinik, Buckhorn and now the BOG in stride, the university must convince legislators to set aside money in the upcoming budget to fund the project.

Though the BOG recommended the Florida Legislature to set aside $17 million for the first installment, the board has no power to amend the budget. 

According to an executive summary presentation on the BOG website, the construction of the new medical school could cost up to $153 million, most of which relies on state funding. 

The university wants approximately $130 million from state funding, including the $62 million the state had originally intended to put toward a new medical school for USF’s Tampa campus. 

The project would then have to go to the Legislature, which convenes March 3, for approval. USF is hoping for its first $17 million installment by the end of 2015.

Though there seems to be enough approval in the Legislature already, according to the Tampa Bay Times, USF and Vinik sent lobbyists to Tallahassee to warm legislators to the idea. 

The last hurdle is Gov. Rick Scott, who did not account for the medical school in the budget he proposed last month.

The Legislature can modify the budget, but Scott holds the power of veto. Buckhorn told the Tampa Bay Times, however, that Scott is on board with the downtown medical school.

If Scott signs off on budgeting money for the medical school, USF will still have to raise $23 million in private funds for the building. According to the Tampa Bay Times, USF President Judy Genshaft said university officials are working on lining up big-time donors.