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USF looking at Heights complex for high-tech medical center

TAMPA — Developers of a stalled project on the edge of downtown are hoping to get a boost from a proposed high-tech medical training complex.

The University of South Florida is considering the Heights as the location for the Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation, a 60,000-square-foot facility where doctors from around the world could receive high-tech surgical training and new medical devices could be developed and tested.

"Right now, we're exploring the possibility of doing this at the Heights location," said USF spokesman Michael Hoad.

The complex also would include a 126-room hotel and 450-space parking garage.

"This will absolutely catapult the Heights to the next level," said Darren Booth, development manager for the 48-acre Heights project. "It's a very difficult time to develop anything here, and a major facility like this USF training facility will jump-start all of the waterfront development. It will accelerate the arrival of those restaurants and cafes we're working on."

The Heights was unveiled in 2004 as a mixed-use community with 2,000 residential units and commercial and office space.

But the slumping economy slowed the project to a near halt. So far, the only major activity there has been construction of a two-story office building that should be done this year.

University officials are negotiating with the city, county and developers of the Heights to finance the medical complex.

"This is an opportunity to create a jewel," said Mark Huey, Tampa's administrator for economic development. "This training center will be one of only a handful of its kind in the world. That's why we're working so hard collectively to make it work."

Mayor Pam Iorio, USF president Judy Genshaft, USF medical school dean Steven Klasko and Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan met this week to hash out some details.

"It's an incredibly exciting economic development opportunity for our community," Hagan said. "However, we need to ensure that in moving forward we minimize the potential risk to taxpayers."

Early plans call for the conference center to be financed by bonds backed by lease payments from the university. A private company would build the hotel.

The debt on the $9 million parking garage, though, would be shared by the university, the city, the county and the Heights development team. Huey estimated the total annual debt payments at $500,000 to $700,000.

USF has worked on the center for at least four years. Where to build it has been a key question.

In 2006, administrators announced plans to build it at a research park on USF's Tampa campus. At that time, they estimated the project's cost at $60 to $70 million. Two years later, they said the search for a suitable site had complicated progress.

The Heights is appealing because visiting doctors and families would have easy access to museums, restaurants and entertainment venues, Hoad said.

In an effort to expand its continuing education offerings to surgeons, USF Health has opened two facilities similar to the one envisioned for the Heights.

In March, the $1.5 million USF Health Simulation Center opened at Tampa General Hospital. It has more than a half-dozen simulators that allow doctors to practice laparoscopic and endoscopic surgical techniques.

In August, USF Health unveiled a $4 million center — one of two nationwide — at its college of medicine to train doctors to do robot-assisted surgery. Up to 600 physicians a year are expected to train there, paying $3,000 a day.

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.

USF looking at Heights complex for high-tech medical center 11/11/09 [Last modified: Friday, November 13, 2009 11:53pm]
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