TAMPA —Technically speaking, the first structure to break ground in the $2 billion redevelopment of downtown’s Channelside District was a large, white tent protecting pastries and dignitaries Tuesday morning.
The second came about an hour later as city and University of South Florida officials plunged golden shovels into the ground that will become the new Morsani College of Medicine and USF Health Heart Institute by 2020.
To Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the site dedication ceremony was more than a new era for USF, named a top 25 public research university this month, but the first step in Tampa’s transformation to a major metropolis competitive with any in the world.
“To attract these young people to come not only to a great university but most importantly to stay in this city depends upon an urban environment that works, that’s alive 18 hours a day, where people want to be, where they don’t need cars, where they celebrate our diversity as a strength,” Buckhorn said.
“That will be the economy that will allow my two little girls to come home here some day. This is where Tampa turns that page.”
The 11-story USF complex will be an anchor for the project, said Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, who donated the one-acre property for the new college in the heart of 40 waterfront acres that will be redeveloped by Strategic Property Partners, a partnership with Vinik and the Bill Gates-owned Cascade Investment, LLC.
The new college, at South Meridian Avenue and Channelside Drive, will be flanked by a 1,800-space parking garage and a companion medical office building serving primarily doctors and health care companies.
With its new building, the Morsani college at the main campus of USF will move closer to TGH. Now, at 11 miles away, USF has the only medical school among the top 100 funded by the National Institutes for Health that is located more than 25 minutes away from its primary teaching hospital.
The college now is 11 miles north, on 30th Street near Fletcher at the main USF campus
The new building is also blocks away from USF’s state of the art Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation, or CAMLS, and nearer to other partners like All Children’s Hospital and the Florida Orthopedic Institute. Vinik said he envisions water taxis shuttling students and others between USF’s centers and TGH.
“We are building a medical school of the future, one that will allow us to educate future doctors in an era when medical knowledge doubles every 73 days,” Lockwood said.
That vision is also central to the rest of the project, which will include one or two 6,000-foot office buildings, a 500-room hotel, at least 1,000 residential units, a new Publix, retail stores, restaurants, coffee shops and other entertainment venues. Vinik said he would like the area to become the first “WELL Certified” district in the world, dedicated to protecting the health and wellness of its residents.
The district will be dotted with water features, public art, parks and multiple bike paths and large walkways, as well as space for fresh fruits, vegetables and healthy foods, sound barriers to protect residents from the noise of the city and low pollen emitting trees.
There weren’t too many updates on the grander plan to share Tuesday during the dedication, Vinik said, but he feels confident USF’s presence will bring a host of new residents and other business opportunities.
Millennials, like those studying at the nearby University of Tampa and USF’s downtown centers, would be the perfect demographic for the wellness district, he said.
“The vast majority of young people today are concerned about social causes and doing the right thing for the environment and their own health for wellness, and are really the generation leading this movement,” Vinik said.
“We’re making great progress on a number of initiatives all at the same time and all the pieces are falling into place to create something that we hope will change this community for generations to come.”
The project has already boosted USF’s reputation, Genshaft said.
This school year, the college of medicine received about 5,000 applications for 170 slots and the first-year class of medical students had the highest average scores in Florida on the Medical College Admission Test — 32.75.
This year, the college already has received almost 6,200 applications for next year, Lockwood said, making it one of the most competitive medical schools in the nation.
“We do believe part of that is because of the new location that will be downtown,” Genshaft said.
More than half of USF’s medical students choose to live in south Tampa already, Genshaft said, and the university’s 704 medical residents — most of whom do their residencies at TGH — visit health centers throughout the region.
The downtown medical college and housing nearby will put them even closer to their studies and work, she said.
“We are creating a vibrant center of learning and research that will eventually touch everyone’s lives in the Tampa Bay region,” Genshaft said.
It was easy to sign off on $62 million in state funding for the project over several years, $17 million of it in Gov. Rick Scott’s budget for this year, said Mori Hosseini, chairman of the State University System’s Board of Governors. The board approved the request unanimously. So far, the $153 million project has received about $57 million in state funding and $18 million in private donations.
“It has long been the priority of the BOG to support higher education programs and facilities that provide the most return on investment for the state’s economy especially in the STEM and health fields,” Hosseini said. “This project will truly be transformative.”
Just five years ago, Tampa was mired in depths of the recession, Buckhorn said. Unemployment was at 12 percent and 4,000 homes were in some state of mortgage foreclosure. Now, he said, the city is poised for a renaissance.
But for Frank and Carol Morsani, the true impact of the new complex is still hard to fully grasp. The philanthropists donated $18 million for the College of Medicine well before the downtown project began to form, Frank Morsani said.
“We feel very humbled this has happened; very pleased and proud that it will be transformational for our downtown region,” Frank Morsani said. “We hope it will inspire the students and young people to know that anything is possible.”