PINELLAS PARK — Sometime in the next month or so, Pinellas Park will officially become the home of the first orthotics school in the southeastern United States.
The J.E. Hanger College of Orthotics and Prosthetics at St. Petersburg College's Pinellas Park campus will offer a program that will lead to a professional baccalaureate degree in orthotics and prosthetics.
Practitioners evaluate patients and design and make orthopedic braces and artificial limbs.
"In six weeks, the hospital will open," said Karl Kuttler, SPC president.
It will be the fourth in the United States, the first of its kind in the Southeast and the only such school east of the Mississippi.
Kuttler delivered his news Wednesday at a meeting of the Pinellas Park/Gateway Chamber of Commerce. His good news was not limited to Pinellas Park.
He also had good news for Seminole — it will likely be the site of a proposed school of veterinary medicine. The program, which would be run in partnership with the University of Florida, would be at the campus of the Seminole Vocational Education Center, owned by the Pinellas County School Board.
Representatives from the UF vet school recently toured three sites in Pinellas and preferred the Seminole site, he said. Details still need to be worked out between the school district, SPC and UF, but Kuttler predicted that in the next 60 days or so, any lingering issues should be resolved.
Funding is another issue that has to be considered, he said.
"This is a bad year to start a program like that," Kuttler said.
The school needs someone like Leona Helmsley, who recently left millions to her dog, to help it along, he said. But Kuttler is confident things will work out.
"I believe (that) five years from now, we're going to have a vet school and, hopefully, it will be at that site," Kuttler said.
Seminole Mayor Jimmy Johnson was thrilled at the news.
Johnson helped support neighbors who objected when the School Board considered closing the Vo-Ed campus. A vet school, he said, would also be a welcome asset to Seminole.
"I think it's wonderful," Johnson said. "I think the people that live in that area are going to welcome it with open arms. … Bring it on."
Pinellas Park officials have been equally thrilled at the prospect of having the orthotics school.
Not only will the school bring recognition to the city, it replaced the derelict Tiki II mobile home park and campground. SPC bought the Tiki II site, 6710 Park Blvd., for $1.3-million in 2004.
Tiki II was characterized by rundown trailers that rented weekly to transients or others who could not afford the down payment to rent an apartment at a large complex. City officials cringed at its appearance and the high crime rate.
In 1998 and 1999, the situation became so bad that the electricity was cut off to the entire property because of safety concerns. Tenants complained of leaky roofs and substandard housing. The Tiki II owners disputed the claims.
Today, the site has a snazzy new building in the final stages of completion.
"It's one of the more complicated buildings to build," Kuttler said.
That's because of environmental issues. The dust and other debris from the manufacture of prosthetic limbs must be contained, and that requires special equipment.
"All of this is just in the final stages of being installed," Kuttler said.
It is unclear how many students will be admitted to the program. Admission is not guaranteed just by meeting normal SPC standards.
Other selection criteria will be considered, including an interview with a panel of faculty members and clinicians.
Graduates will be eligible to sit for the National Boards in Orthotics and Prosthetics after completing a year of supervised residency to become eligible to practice in Florida.
Orthotists work in such places as hospitals, nursing homes and private practice.
Salaries are generally between $56,000 and $91,000 a year, depending on the area of the country and experience.
For information about the orthotics school, call 341-4772.