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USF must decide location of new medical school to get state funds

JUPITER — The University of South Florida must settle on a location for its new medical school building, or it could have trouble getting additional public money for the project next year, a key committee of the state university system said Wednesday.

USF officials say they are still weighing whether to expand on their current campus or build in downtown Tampa. But members of the Florida Board of Governors' facility committee said USF risks missing out on state construction money in the next legislative session if it doesn't make up its mind by the end of the year.

"This committee will not vote on anything it doesn't feel comfortable with," committee member Mori Hosseini said at a meeting at Florida Atlantic University's Jupiter campus.

USF president Judy Genshaft told members she expected a decision on the location in the next couple of months.

The Board of Governors committee was hearing pitches from all the state's universities seeking money next year for capital projects. The committee makes recommendations to the full board, which will submit a list of priority projects to the Legislature early next year.

State legislators can approve construction money for those projects as the board requests, but they also can choose to fund their own priorities.

USF plans to ask for a total of $62 million in state funds over the next three years, including $17 million next legislative session, for the new medical school building. The project is already in the funding pipeline; legislators this year allocated $5 million to USF for planning costs.

But the committee's comments Wednesday suggested that USF's request for the next round — the $17 million — could be delayed at least a year if key details aren't finalized. After the meeting, Genshaft said in an interview that she is confident that USF would get all the necessary information to the board in time for the next legislative session.

USF has been in talks with Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik about making a new medical school part of his massive redevelopment project at the southern end of downtown. Genshaft told committee members Wednesday that USF is still talking with Vinik, though she did not provide details.

University officials raised a new complication. If the medical school does go downtown, USF would consider coupling it with another project: the proposed $50 million USF Heart Health Institute that already has a planned location on the main campus on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard.

Genshaft said it would make sense to move the heart institute downtown to the same site as the medical school. If that happens, she said, the university could easily find another use for the campus property now set aside for the heart institute.

The USF Heart Health Institute has already received $34 million in state funds and needs $15.8 million more next year for construction to begin. But moving that project from its currently proposed site would likely require additional state permission since the costs might change, medical school dean Charles Lockwood said.

For the medical school building, total costs would likely top $80 million. In addition to the $62 million from the state, USF plans to raise private donations to pay for the project. Much of that private money will come out of a $20 million gift from philanthropists Frank and Carol Morsani.

Frank Morsani told the Tampa Bay Times last week that USF may end up moving only third-year and fourth-year medical students to a downtown campus and keeping students in their first two years on the main campus in north Tampa. USF officials did not mention that as a consideration Wednesday but said they may include other health programs — such as pharmacy — in a downtown building.

The 40-year-old building that now houses the medical school is outdated and too small, officials say, but USF says all its health programs are bursting at the seams at the main campus.

The full board meets next month, and committee members said they are also willing to hold a special meeting to hear another presentation from USF.

Contact Jodie Tillman at Follow @jtillmantimes.