TAMPA — As the University of South Florida seeks more state money for a new medical school building, the project's biggest benefactor offered a glimpse Friday of what — and where — that new structure could be.
Philanthropist Frank Morsani said USF Health officials are strongly considering a downtown campus for third- and fourth-year medical students.
"The majority of the education early on will take place at the main campus, but the last two years, I think the downtown campus makes sense," he said.
Morsani also said Friday he has talked with Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik about making the medical school part of his massive redevelopment project at the southern end of downtown. But he emphasized that no decision had been made.
Later Friday, Vinik's land development company made its clearest statement yet of its interest in the idea.
"We believe that a major medical school in the heart of downtown would be a great positive for the Tampa Bay community and for the University of South Florida," said Jim Shimberg, the chief operating officer of Vinik's Strategic Property Partners.
"We'll continue to follow the lead of Mayor (Bob) Buckhorn and the leadership at USF as they work through the process in identifying potential locations," Shimberg said in a written statement. "We do have the necessary property and a desire to do transformative things with that property. We admire that USF is dreaming big, and we are doing the same thing!"
USF is preparing a pitch next week for more state funding for the new medical school building.
Officials' presentation to a committee of the Florida Board of Governors on Wednesday will include the state portion of the price tag ($62 million) and a size (142,000 square feet). It doesn't say anything about the location.
Still, moving the medical school downtown has been the subject of increasing speculation as Vinik puts together a master plan for his 24 acres near Amalie Arena, as well as the Channelside Bay Plaza shopping center. This week, Vinik paid $150 million for the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina and secured city approval to build a second hotel next to the Marriott.
In her address to students last month, USF president Judy Genshaft talked about the "exciting developments downtown" and noted that USF has a "great friendship with Mr. Jeff Vinik and his organization."
She continued: "I want to be absolutely clear: Whatever decision is made about the location of the future USF Health facilities, it does not mean that USF Health is leaving the Tampa campus. In fact, USF Health needs to grow on this campus, too."
Morsani, who with his wife, Carol, donated $20 million to the project, said he prefers keeping first- and second- year medical students on the Bruce B. Downs Boulevard campus with students in pharmacy, nursing and public health.
Then he favors moving medical students to a downtown building, where they would be close to Tampa General Hospital, USF's main teaching hospital.
USF Health officials would not comment on such details. "A decision of this magnitude, it's more important we make the correct decision rather than a decision by a particular date," said spokeswoman Lisa Greene.
Buckhorn said he's confident talks are moving well based on discussions he has had with Vinik, his business partners, Genshaft, medical school dean Dr. Charles Lockwood, outgoing state House Speaker Will Weatherford and several members of the USF board of trustees.
"I think all the players are lining up … behind the project of moving the medical school downtown," Buckhorn said.
On Vinik's property? He didn't go that far but said that if a Vinik site becomes available at a reasonable price, USF's decision becomes "a lot easier."
Even if USF does want to make the move, Buckhorn said the Legislature and Board of Governors would need to approve it, and money for the project would have to be lined up.
Still, he said, having Morsani's support is critical because of Morsani's credibility and his ability to bring in other donors.
USF will join other state universities next week making pitches for construction projects. Other USF proposals scheduled to get a hearing include the St. Petersburg campus' new business school building and the USF Health Heart Institute.
The Board of Governors recommends priorities to the Legislature.
USF is hoping for $62 million from the state for the medical school project. Additional funding required would come from private sources, primarily the Morsani gift.
USF received $5 million this year from the Legislature to start planning the project. The university will ask for $17 million next year and the rest of the $62 million in the subsequent two legislative sessions, said Mark Walsh, USF's assistant vice president for government relations.
USF Health officials have said they are bursting at the seams at their 40-year-old complex.
Freeing up space in the medical school would also allow USF Health to expand enrollment and offerings in its nursing program. This past fall, the nursing program had to turn away 331 of its 431 qualified applicants in the prelicensure nursing program because of space limitations. Enrollment in the nursing school exceeds 2,000 students and "will not be able to accommodate further growth without additional space," the USF document says.
Meanwhile, a similar project is emerging in Orlando, where the University of Central Florida announced last week what could become a $200 million campus in downtown Orlando.
The Orlando Sentinel reported that the university has been exploring the idea of a downtown campus since January. That's when UCF administrators saw Arizona State University's campus in downtown Phoenix.
UCF president John Hitt said the university would seek $50 million to $60 million from the Legislature next spring.