TAMPA — University of South Florida's health programs are, as the new medical school dean puts it, "bursting at the seams."
So that leaves USF Health with a big decision: Will it expand on its current campus or move to downtown Tampa?
"We're looking at all the options," Dr. Charles Lockwood, USF's medical school dean, said in a recent meeting with the Tampa Bay Times editorial board.
USF got $5 million from the Legislature last session to plan for a new medical school. Lockwood emphasized that officials are in early stages of planning but confirmed that downtown is on the list of potential homes.
Expanding on land near its current campus off Bruce B. Downs Boulevard would be the easier, and most likely the less expensive, option. Moving downtown would be "exciting," he said, and attractive to young medical students seeking an urban environment.
Another key selling point for downtown: It would put the school within walking distance of Tampa General Hospital, its primary teaching hospital — something that could raise USF's profile as an academic medical center.
Lockwood said he's neutral on location until the numbers come in, but Mayor Bob Buckhorn isn't. He relishes the idea of having it in downtown Tampa.
"It would be the most singularly important relocation in downtown Tampa," said Buckhorn, who's been pushing that point to USF. "That changes the game, if that were to happen.
"It's a huge economic driver, as all urban universities are, for jobs, for young professionals associated with the medical school, who'd want to live in the urban core."
USF Health already has a presence downtown with its Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation, or CAMLS, on S Franklin Street. Lockwood noted the CAMLS building can be expanded vertically, but said such an expansion would likely be needed for the center's growing business for medical device research and development.
Across from CAMLS are several blocks of parking lots, some of which previously had been proposed for a 20-story office tower and hotel.
Buckhorn also mentioned as a possibility Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik's 20-plus acres of undeveloped land across from the Tampa Bay Times Forum, on the north side of Channelside Drive. Vinik is still in the planning stages for that property, but has said it would include residential units, retail stores, restaurants and office space.
If USF Health were to move all its programs — medical school education, plus nursing, public health and pharmacy — it would require a roughly 460,000-square-foot building. And that wouldn't come cheap.
"Obviously, the constraints are financial," Lockwood said. Besides seeking state construction money, the university would need to do heavy private fundraising for a new building.
In 2011, Frank and Carol Morsani donated $20 million toward the future construction of a new college of medicine. At that time, USF officials spoke of using that money to help build a $60 million, five- or six-story building that would include classrooms, lecture halls, auditoriums and a full-time health clinic run by students.
Lockwood emphasized that a new building can't do anything to affect tuition, especially since one of his priorities is reducing the debt of medical students. "That's the third rail," he said.
Buckhorn hopes USF finds a way to make downtown happen.
"The commitment is there for both USF and the city," he said. "I think we are in lockstep on this being important."