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Legislators give Moffitt $100-million

With remarkably little public opposition and even less fanfare, legislators awarded $100-million Friday in cigarette tax money over the next decade to build and outfit a tower for outpatient treatment and molecular biology at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center.

"This is not just more bricks with Lee's name on it. Ten to 15 years from now, it will make an incredible difference for people in Florida," said Dr. John C. Ruckdeschel, the center director.

Preliminary plans call for a six-story, 329,000-square-foot research tower immediately north of the 162-bed cancer hospital on the University of South Florida campus.

Construction will be funded by 2.59 percent from the state's existing cigarette tax, which comes from the state's general revenue fund. The bill, which still must be signed into law by Gov. Lawton Chiles, calls for the general revenue money to be replenished from available money from the tobacco litigation settlement. The funding was crafted to allow the hospital to go to bond financers with backing from a stable revenue source.

Ruckdeschel said the new building will relieve crowding, allow consolidation of outpatient services on its first floor and house laboratories for scientists doing basic research into the cause and cures of cancer. Construction is scheduled to begin next year.

"It's a tremendous milestone for the cancer center," said H. Lee Moffitt, the Tampa lawyer and former state House speaker who also lobbied successfully for the original cancer center, which was completed in 1986 with a $54-million appropriation of cigarette tax money.

When it was built, Florida led the nation in cancer cases and cancer deaths. Now, the state ranks second.

The research tower, which has not yet been designed, will be completed in 2002, and scientists will be brought in over the next eight years, Ruckdeschel said. It is the latest project in the burgeoning hospital and research row that has sprung up around the USF College of Medicine and the non-profit University Community Hospital. Tampa General Hospital plans to build a $450-million medical research center and 450-bed hospital on private land across from the southwest corner of USF, on Fowler Avenue.

Ruckdeschel said there was an urgent need at the cancer center for more space, particularly for outpatient care. Diagnostic and treatment services were strained as more patients receive outpatient care, due to shifting reimbursements from managed care and changes in treatment.

"We clearly saw we were going to wind up building eight or 10 little pods," he said.