JACKSONVILLE — It has been a smooth ride for the University of South Florida's proposed downtown Tampa medical school. In the past four months the project has won nothing but accolades and approving votes.
The victory tour came to an abrupt halt on Wednesday.
The medical school faced a crucial vote for state funding from the Board of Governors, which oversees the State University System. But the meeting quickly unraveled when a handful of governors complained they didn't know enough to start spending tens of millions.
"I don't understand why we don't have a presentation on this so we can be prepared," said board member Dean Colson. "I shouldn't have to fly to Tampa to get the details."
The BOG's facilities committee authorized USF to spend just a fraction of the money — $5 million — but delayed approving the rest of the $57 million it is seeking until they get more answers.
Instead, the governors told USF to come back Feb. 19 to give a more detailed presentation.
USF could have made a presentation on Wednesday — but officials were never told to do so.
The committee chair, Fort Lauderdale businessman H. Wayne Huizenga Jr., took the blame for the confusion.
"I accept full responsibility for that," he said.
USF president Judy Genshaft vowed to give the board whatever information it needs to secure funding for the medical campus.
"We'll do whatever it takes," she said.
The medical school's main backers — Genshaft, Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn — all came to the University of North Florida to lobby the board for funding.
They told the governors that USF's proposed 12-story medical tower would transform the university and downtown Tampa. It would also be one of the pillars of Vinik's $1 billion downtown redevelopment project.
Buckhorn finished with one of his trademark rhetorical flourishes.
"We are putting serious skin in this game," he told the governors. "You have my firstborn."
But instead of the outcome they wanted, the Tampa trio ended up with a front-row seat to the chaos that unfolded. One governor lectured the others about paying better attention next time, and another complained that their process for funding capital projects was broken.
USF has long planned to build a new medical school on its main Tampa campus. But in October that changed when Vinik offered to donate an acre of his downtown land to bring the medical school to his new development.
The university's new plan: combine the Heart Health Institute and Morsani College of Medicine in a downtown building that could cost up to $157 million and open in 2017.
But to get to $157 million, the university was counting on using the $62 million the state already intended to spend when the new medical school was to be built on the main campus.
USF briefed the BOG's facilities committee on its new downtown plans in October. It needed that committee's approval Wednesday to move the allocation process along.
But when the committee assembled Wednesday, it was joined by governors who don't normally serve on it. Those members, like Colson, a Coral Gables lawyer, didn't attend October's briefing. On Wednesday, he asked why USF didn't have a business plan for its new medical school? Why does building it downtown make more sense than building it on the main campus?
The reason: USF hadn't been allowed to pay for one yet. In its last session the Legislature gave USF $5 million of the $62 million up front to start planning the new medical school. But USF wasn't given permission to spend that money.
That was left to the BOG. The $5 million is still sitting there.
Governor Morteza "Mori" Hosseini, an Ormond Beach building executive, proposed that the board should let USF start using that $5 million to pay for the studies the governors now wanted.
"They've been handcuffed," Hosseini said.
Other board members, such as West Palm Beach lawyer Wendy Link, said her fellow board members shouldn't have been so surprised by USF's proposal.
"I don't feel like USF has come to us and told us something different," she said. "I'm hearing the same thing I heard in October."
After more bickering, the committee approved Hosseini's compromise. But that only gives USF a few weeks to come up with whatever plans and studies the BOG wants to see Feb. 19. The BOG still has to allocate the rest of the $57 million over the next three years in the upcoming university system budget. And the Legislature has the final say over that budget.
Buckhorn said he wasn't worried. The mayor noted that none of the governors opposed the medical school project. He said the its supporters just need to give the BOG whatever it needs.
"You know, I think it's just the process," he said. "All the right comments were made by the board members. Obviously they were desirous of more information, of more backup material, which we have and are ready to provide.
"In the long run it's going to be a positive vote."