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Board of Governors Pauses USF Med School Plan

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Even with Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik voicing their support for the plan, the Florida Board of Governors put the University of South Florida's proposed downtown Morsani College of Medicine on hold for the moment.

During the Board's Facilities Committee meeting Wednesday in Jacksonville, USF officials requested $57 million in state funding over the next three fiscal years to build a new medical school, a cornerstone piece of Vinik's proposed $1 billion renovation of the Channelside district.

If the Board approves the request, it would be voted on by the Florida Legislature before going on to the Governor for his approval.

On Wednesday, however, board members put a temporary halt to the procedure. To some, the lack of a detailed business plan was a problem.

"I was looking forward to a debate about is it better to have your medical school on campus or off campus, next to a hospital; it's an interesting intellectual discussion," board member Dean Colson said. "But instead we're talking about numbers and I don't have any numbers to look at."

USF had talked to the Facilities Committee about its plans for a new med school last October, before Vinik made his formal offer to donate an acre of property worth about $10 million dollars to the university.

Colson wasn't in attendance at that October meeting, but other board members told USF at that time to come up with a definitive location before seeking funding for the school.

One of the conditions of Vinik's donation of the land is that USF bases both its Morsani College of Medicine and its new USF Health Heart Institute in the new facility, which has a projected cost of around $157 million.

The committee approved a request for the final $15.8 million in funding for the Heart Institute on Wednesday, bringing the total pledged to that project to $50.1 million. Combined with the $57 million in funds USF is seeking for the College of Medicine, along with $5 million the state legislature gave the project in its last session, there would be a shortfall in the neighborhood of $45 million.

The university has received a $20 million donation from Frank and Carol Morsani -- hence the college's name change -- and is seeking private donations to get the final $25 million. While Genshaft told reporters after Wednesday's meeting they're "very, very close" to getting that money from as of yet unidentified sources, some board members were worried about what would happen if USF couldn't raise those funds.

"If that doesn't succeed, we will scale back in the building, so that it does meet the $57 million and doesn't go beyond that," Genshaft reassured the board.

She also said they had a plan they could have presented to the committee on Wednesday, but time limitations and technical requests from board members prevented them from doing so.

"Well, it's whatever they ask for, we're happy to give them items online, we'll give them a presentation if they ask for a presentation," Genshaft said. "We've done so much work on this, we're really ready to present whenever and however much they want."

The committee voted to allow USF to present their plan at the Board of Governor's next meeting Feb. 19 in Tallahassee. They also allowed USF to start spending the $5 million the state legislature previously gave the university for the Morsani facility. USF could use some of those funds for studies the governors want to see.

Genshaft is confident their proposal will be approved in time for the start of the Florida Legislature's session in March.

"This really was a move forward," she said. "All of the members seemed very positive about us moving this downtown, and they're looking forward to seeing more information."

The facility committee did give USF some good news Wednesday, approving a separate request for $12.3 million, the final funding needed to begin construction of a new building for the USF St. Petersburg Kate Tiedemann College of Business. They also approved $6 million for a new marine research ship for the Florida Institute of Oceanography, which USF serves as host institute for.

Mark Schreiner has been the producer and reporter for "University Beat" on WUSF 89.7 FM since 2001 and on WUSF TV from 2007-2017.