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USF trustees endorse downtown Tampa medical school

An artist’s rendering shows what the new 12-story Morsani College of Medicine building could look like in downtown Tampa.
An artist’s rendering shows what the new 12-story Morsani College of Medicine building could look like in downtown Tampa.
Published Dec. 26, 2014

TAMPA — The dean of the University of South Florida's medical school on Thursday implored a key group of trustees to bless the rise of a new downtown medical school.

It would reshape USF and Tampa, Dr. Charles Lockwood told them.

Then the dean called in his closer: Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

"This decision is the single most important that has occurred in the last 25 years," Buckhorn said. "This is bigger than baseball."

Then the mayor smiled and offered this last plea:

"Please do it. I don't want to have to turn the water off at the university."

The eight trustees who oversee USF Health's medical and educational programs laughed, then voted unanimously to build the new Morsani College of Medicine on a downtown acre donated by Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik.

And that's how USF's urban medical school took a major step toward reality.

The next step is for all 13 trustees to vote on the health committee's recommendation at their Dec. 4 meeting. The full board generally gives great weight to the endorsement of the committee. USF president Judy Genshaft also supports the project.

"This is significant," Buckhorn said. "This is our legacy. This is Judy's legacy. This will be my legacy. And 10 years from now, when this building is up, and this city is a different place because of you, we will look back and say it was this decision."

Thursday's vote seemed to dampen hopes that the Lightning owner's land could somehow be utilized to build a baseball stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays.

A stadium could still fit in the area, Buckhorn said, if the nearby ConAgra flour mill is moved. But the mayor said the 24 acres Vinik owns seems destined for other uses.

"I think it is safe to say that the Vinik group has plans other than baseball for their holdings," Buckhorn said. "But we have assumed that for the past year."

Lockwood, the senior vice president for USF Health and dean of the Morsani College of Medicine, briefed the trustees on what a downtown teaching facility might entail. He also offered a glimpse into Vinik's plans to redevelop that end of downtown Tampa around the home of his hockey team, Amalie Arena.

The new Morsani College of Medicine and the USF Heart Health Institute, a new USF facility looking for a home, would both reside inside a 12-story building with 287,824 square feet of usable space at the corner of Channelside Drive and S Meridian Avenue.

The cost of the 12-story medical school tower was estimated to be between $150 million to $163 million. So far, USF believes it can count on $130 million in donations and state funding for the project.

Superdonors Frank and Carol Morsani pledged $18 million. The Heart Health Institute was set to get $50 million from the state. Back when USF planned to build the new medical school on the main campus, it was going to ask the state for $62 million.

But building downtown will require USF to find additional funding. The university needs to finalize its downtown decision before it can ask the Board of Governors for state funding at the board's Jan. 21-22 meeting.

Vinik is negotiating with USF to donate an acre for the project that his people estimated is worth $10 to $12 million. Vinik's ownership group, Strategic Property Partners, also plans to develop three nearby acres in conjunction with USF's new project.

SPP plans to build a medical office building next door to the new USF medical tower at the corner of Channelside Drive and a newly extended Old Water Street. That building would be about 10 stories, and USF could rent space there for other medical programs.

Vinik's firm would also build an 1,800-car parking garage behind both buildings along Cumberland Avenue. Lockwood said that part of USF's negotiations would require SPP to allow students to park downtown for the same cost as parking on the main campus.

A downtown medical school has some negatives: Student services would be duplicated on both campuses, faculty and students would be split apart, and the dissection labs would stay on the main campus.

But university leaders spent Thursday extolling the idea's virtues, that it could transform USF into an urban university. USF's Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation, or CAMLS, is already downtown.

"We would actually create a university district," Lockwood said.

The new heart institute would benefit by being in close proximity to the cardiac programs at Tampa General Hospital, while USF Health's cramped nursing and public health programs would be able to expand when the medical school leaves the main campus.

But Genshaft said she doesn't want USF Health split apart forever. One day, she hoped, mass transit could connect the new downtown campus to the main campus. Hillsborough County could vote on such a system in 2016.

"You may shut off our water," she told the mayor. "But we need that light rail to our Tampa campus. Do you promise?"

"I'll be out of office," Buckhorn said. "So yeah."

Contact Jamal Thalji at thalji@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3404. Follow @jthalji.