CLEARWATER — Tampa Bay philanthropists Dr. Kiran Patel and his wife, Dr. Pallavi Patel are spending $200 million to create and promote a Tampa Bay regional campus for the private Nova Southeastern University.
Their commitment to the Fort Lauderdale-based university — $50 million in a cash donation and $150 million toward real estate the Patels would continue to control — would rank among the largest individual commitments to a college or university.
It also could reshape the local landscape for higher education — both in adding a new private college player in the market and in spurring the bay area's emergence as a key training ground for the medical community.
"Imagine the numbers of lives you're going to touch," Patel said in a phone interview with the Tampa Bay Times. "It is our blessing that we could do this, both because we have the financial capacity and means, but also finding a partner like this."
Patel, a former cardiologist who currently runs the Tampa-based managed health care company Freedom Health, made the bulk of his fortune 15 years ago when he sold another HMO, WellCare Health Plans, for a reported $200 million.
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Nova, a private nonprofit university with an emphasis on health sciences and research, currently operates a small campus in Tampa. Over all its 12 campuses in Florida and Puerto Rico, and online, it has about 23,000 students and 150 degree programs.
The project comes at a time when another deep-pocketed local philanthropist, Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, is focused on the medical training landscape across the bay, donating an acre of land to the University of South Florida's Morsani College of Medicine, a downtown Tampa project that broke ground last week.
Patel and his wife also have given to USF for health-related programs — about $30 million — as well as to a number of other local causes. Among their contributions: $5 million in March to the Florida Hospital Carrollwood for an emergency department expansion, $3 million toward a Florida Hospital Tampa research institute and $5 million for a conservatory for the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa.
The Patels' gift consists of two parts: a $50 million cash donation that will go to the school directly, and $150 million in real estate and "facility investment."
Nova received about half of the $50 million, with the other half pledged. It will be put toward the osteopathic medicine program and pay for the first two years before the program is self sufficient. Some of that will go toward scholarships in both osteopathic medicine and health sciences.
The $150 million will go toward building a 325,000-square-foot medical education complex.
The Patels will retain ownership of the land and the facility, and Nova will be paying rent on an operational lease for a minimum of 20 years, according to George L. Hanbury, Nova's president. Hanbury would not disclose the price of rent, describing it as "market" price.
The gift is Nova's largest ever, and one of the largest to a higher education institution in years. According to data from the national Chronicle of Philanthropy, which tracks major donations, Patel's combined commitment of $200 million is among the top 27 largest donations to a U.S. college or university since 2000. The Chronicle's data is current as of February.
Any multimillion dollar gift is a big deal, said David Weerts, associate professor at the University of Minnesota.
"It's a testament to Nova that they were able to attract a donor that sees what they're doing as very transformational for the region and not necessarily linked to their loyalties as alumni," Weerts said.
According to a release by Nova, the $50 million gift brings the university's current "$250 million by 2020" philanthropic campaign up to about $212 million.
The unusual part about the gift is the land ownership aspect, said Noah D. Drezner, associate professor at Columbia University's Teachers College.
"It's not a clear philanthropic transaction in which he's giving a gift to the university and then the university retains it and retains control of that (land)," Drezner, who specializes in education funding, said.
The project came about through an ongoing relationship between Nova and the Patels over the past five years. Patel's niece and nephew went to Nova's dentistry college, and Hanbury had run into Patel at several town hall functions.
In February, Hanbury invited Patel to dinner at Roy's in Tampa, and Patel announced he wanted to start a college of osteopathic medicine.
"I said, 'Well, Dr. Patel, why reinvent the wheel?' " Hanbury said. The two decided to move forward as partners.
Patel had wanted to start his own medical school for some time, but said he knew the biggest challenge beyond infrastructure and accreditation was putting together the curriculum and academics to run it.
That's where Nova came in.
Patel said he was drawn to the school because of its academic platform and track record with medical studies.
He also admired the reputation of its students.
"Historically, Nova graduates are known to be providing services in underserved areas, so that path will continue," he said.
Patel said he wants the school to focus on both international connections and servicing locals. With the new campus, Nova expects its graduating physicians to jump from about 230 to about 380 per year. Those additional doctors, Patel said, mean more primary care for the people of Florida.
Navigating partnerships with large-gift donors can be a challenge for higher education institutes.
"You certainly want (the donor) involved in the vision and what the program is about," Weerts said, "but universities have to be careful with how they handle these gifts in a way that honors the university's mission but is a good steward of the gift for the donor."
Patel insists that he will have no bearing on the curriculum or anything beyond funding and creating the physical infrastructure.
"My role is very clear — one, (I need) to write the check, and two, make the building available in a timely manner," he said. "They have to provide the academic infrastructure and ensure that quality education is being provided.
Aside from Nova, the Patels do not currently have any other partners.
Eventually, Nova plans to partner with Nashville, Tenn.-based HCA Healthcare as a teaching hospital for its students to find internships and residencies, said Nova spokesperson Joe Donzelli. HCA is in the process of building a hospital on Nova's Fort Lauderdale campus. Until then, the school is partnering with a number of hospitals around the state.
The site of the upcoming college — located at 3400 Gulf to Bay Blvd. — sits near the Courtney Campbell Causeway. It was previously home to Clearwater Christian College, which shuttered in 2015 due to a poor endowment, declining enrollment and mounting debt.
The Patels purchased the plot for $10.2 million in December 2016 with their foundation, Drs. Kiran & Pallavi Patel Family Foundation.
At the time, Patel had estimated that it would take about $50 million to start the school if the campus' existing infrastructure, such as classrooms and dorms, were used. But he decided to scrap that plan and build an entirely new facility.
Nova will be setting up camp in USF's backyard. Across the bay, USF's Morsani College of Medicine has grown in size and ambition since enrolling its first class in 1971. Recently in U.S. News & World Report, it was ranked No. 56 among the nation's best medical schools for research.
It has also become more selective. In fiscal year 2015-16, more than 5,200 students applied for 177 seats at the USF school.
A health hub
When the school is up and running, Patel expects it to add to what he said is Tampa Bay's growing reputation as a "health hub."
In recent months, Tampa Bay has drawn an increasing number of medical companies, facilities and institutions: California biotech company Amgen opened a facility in Tampa in March, and pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson chose Tampa for its corporate service headquarters in 2015. Downtown, USF is constructing its new medical school.
What will set Nova's new campus apart, Patel said, will be its international focus, both in terms of its student body and its aim to expose future doctors to medical challenges around the world.
"The world will benefit from our students going there," he said. "Today's medical student has very little exposure of lifestyle standards in third world countries, and our focus is going to be to ensure that students coming out of this college are going to have a vastly different experience."
With an aggressive timeline of completing the project and opening the doors by 2019 — already moved back slightly from an initial 2016 projection — one challenge Patel and Nova will face is construction of the buildings.
Despite continued recent growth in the construction sector, the country is amid a years-long construction worker shortage, especially for skilled workers. This largely came about following the 2008 recession, when many left the work force for other fields or retired. There haven't been enough incoming construction workers to fill the resulting gap.
And with several other billion-dollar-plus construction projects around Tampa Bay — Vinik and Cascade Investment's Water Street Tampa, Duke Energy Florida's natural gas plant and Tampa International Airport's makeover — competition for construction workers will likely be stiff.
But Patel isn't worried.
"I feel very good," he said. "I have been talking to several large construction companies that have assured me that they will be able to meet the deadlines I'm putting to them."
He would not identify the construction companies he consulted.