TAMPA — The University of South Florida's ambitious effort to build a high-tech medical training center is moving from a waterfront site on the edge of downtown to a city-owned block near the Tampa Convention Center.
Until recently, USF had been looking at the Heights, a mixed-use development planned for 48 acres on the eastern bank of the Hillsborough River.
Now the focus is on the city's HART parking lot, due south of the Fort Brooke parking garage.
As proposed, USF's 60,000-square-foot center would offer high-tech surgical training to doctors from around the world. It is known as the Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation, or CAMLS, for short.
The city is motivated to see the $20 million facility built in Tampa because of the economic impact of thousands of doctors traveling to the city for training.
"It is obviously a priority for the city to ensure that a project of the significance of CAMLS stays within our community," Mayor Pam Iorio said.
The Heights had welcomed USF's interest, saying the center could jump-start development of the waterfront. But in a slumping real estate market, the condos, shops and cafes envisioned have been slow to arrive.
In March, Fifth Third Bank sued the Heights of Tampa LLC, contending it had defaulted on a $12.5 million mortgage on about a quarter of the property.
On April 13, the university terminated its discussions with the Heights, saying that the time and effort spent to determine whether the project could be built there had been unsuccessful.
On Monday, a university spokesman said the decision to move on was about timing.
The CAMLS project is complex and requires not only training facilities for the surgeons, but also hotel rooms for them and their families, parking and things to do nearby.
"It's not an easy project to put together," USF spokesman Michael Hoad said.
The question was not so much about the foreclosure, but whether the Heights would be in a position to participate in the project given the recession and the difficulties in moving construction projects forward.
USF had always planned to rely on a private developer to build the hotel.
"Our question was, 'Could we wait for it?' " Hoad said. Administrators worry that someone else might build a competing surgical training center first.
Heights development manager Darren Booth said his project will take 10 to 15 years to complete, but he is confident that the pieces will come together.
As it stands, the Beck Group, a construction company, is close to opening a new office building at the Heights, and the first restaurant could arrive in October.
"I think we're making pretty good progress," Booth said.
With the shift in focus, USF and Tampa officials are now talking about the HART parking lot, which is bordered by S Florida Avenue, S Franklin Street, E Cumberland Avenue and E Brorein Street.
Given the proximity of nearby hotels, Hoad said it's possible that a CAMLS center on the HART block might not need a new hotel to be built.
But it is still early. The city would have to issue a request for proposals and get an appraisal before the lot could be sold.
"We haven't even started the process yet," Iorio said.
USF has worked on creating the center for at least four years, but finding a suitable location hasn't been easy.
In the meantime, USF Health has opened two other similar but much smaller high-tech training facilities.
In March 2009, the $1.5 million USF Health Simulation Center opened at Tampa General Hospital. There, surgeons can practice laparascopic and endoscopic surgical techniques on more than a half-dozen high-tech simulators.
In August, USF Health unveiled a $4 million center at its College of Medicine. It expects up to 600 doctors a year to pay $3,000 a day for training on how to do robot-assisted surgery.