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USF marks construction milestone at medical school building in Water Street Tampa

TAMPA — More than a year into its construction, what new can you say about the University of South Florida's much-heralded USF Health Morsani College of Medicine and Heart Institute?

More than you might expect. As USF leaders and local officials topped off the 13-story building Wednesday, new details emerged about the origin, construction and mission of a project expected to anchor the $3 billion Water Street Tampa development district.

How it happened

In mid-2014, USF Health senior vice president and medical school dean Dr. Charles Lockwood was invited to meet Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and then-Lightning CEO Tod Leiweke, who gave him a tour of Amalie Arena, then still known as the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

"I had no idea why I was there," Lockwood said during a brief ceremony at the foot of the $173 million med school project.

Then Vinik, who has partnered with Cascade Investment, laid out a map of downtown, started describing his vision for the area around the arena and asked Lockwood a question: "Would you be interested in moving the medical school down here?'

"I literally thought for about a picosecond" — that's one trillionth of a second — "and said, yes, but can we move the Heart Institute?" Lockwood said. "He smiled, and the rest is history."

What's inside

When it opens in late 2019, the med school building will be home to 1,800 medical students, faculty, researchers and staff members.

But for now, contractor Skanska USA Building is putting together a 395,000-square-foot building containing unusually large amounts of concrete and steel. There's 47,000 tons of concrete, or about the same weight as 155 Boeing 747 jets. And there's 2.5 million linear feet of rebar, about enough to cover the distance from Tampa to Atlanta.

The reason? Like the rest of Water Street Tampa, the med school will be near the waterfront. So it's being built with extra defenses against storm surge and flooding.

What it means

"This project is staggering in its impact," said USF system president Judy Genshaft said. The Heart Institute is expected to generate a $28 million increase in research funding from the National Institutes of Health in the five years after it opens and at least $66 million a year in local economic activity.

For Strategic Property Partners, the Vinik-Cascade company developing Water Street Tampa, the medical school is driving interest in the rest of the mixed-use project.

"A lot of the office tenants we're talking to, they're interested in coming to downtown Tampa because of this," Strategic CEO James Nozar said. "A lot of the retailers we're talking to, they want to be near these students and the researchers and the faculty."

And for USF, the project has driven an increase in the quantity and quality of applicants to the medical school. USF's applicants score at or above the 90th percentile nationally of all students taking the medical college admissions test, giving USF the applicant pool with the highest average score of any university in Florida, public or private.

"In so many ways," Genshaft said, "this project symbolizes who we are and where we're headed as a community."

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