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Home / budget / Despite wide support, construction of a $187M medical school building still on hold

Despite wide support, construction of a $187M medical school building still on hold

This rendering shows what the proposed Health Sciences Education Building (left) would look like upon completion. The $187 million project has been approved by the Governor’s Office, Legislature and Board of Regents, but remains idle because the Joint Committee on Capital Review has yet to give its OK, citing some members’ concerns over the reliability of future lottery revenue, which would fund the project. (Rendering courtesy of University of Arizona College of Medicine — Phoenix)

This rendering shows what the proposed Health Sciences Education Building would look like upon completion. The $187 million project has been approved by the Governor’s Office, Legislature and Board of Regents, but remains idle because the Joint Committee on Capital Review has yet to give its OK, citing some members’ concerns over the reliability of future lottery revenue, which would fund the project. (Rendering courtesy of University of Arizona College of Medicine — Phoenix)

On the surface, it seemed like a no-brainer to build a new Health Sciences Education Building for Arizona’s three state universities.

After all, the downtown Phoenix construction project was expected to create thousands of jobs, would require no money from the state, and would provide a projected $2 billion overall economic impact.

The $187 million construction project has been approved by the Board of Regents, the Legislature and the Governor’s Office. Design proposals have been created and the land secured at a site near Seventh and Van Buren streets in Phoenix.

However, to the chagrin of many stakeholders, not a shovel’s worth of dirt has moved on the project. So far, it’s been held up in the Joint Committee on Capital Review (JCCR), a 14-member body of the Legislature responsible for reviewing building projects for the state’s universities and community colleges.

Rep. John Kavanagh, a Fountain Hills Republican who serves as chair of the JCCR, says he and other board members are concerned about using future lottery revenue to pay for the building.

“Eighty percent of the debt service is to be paid with lottery revenues, which have evaporated,” Kavanagh says. “We do not want to move forward with a medical school proposal for which there is not lottery money available.”

He also decries a university expansion at a time when students are being saddled with increasing tuition.

“The question is, how much non-lottery-financed construction can we pile on the backs of students?” asks Kavanagh. “We are trying to come up with a reasonable compromise that would allow this project to proceed.”

Al Bravo, associate director of public affairs for the University of Arizona, says the university would ensure completion of the project if lottery money was to run out.

“There is a commitment on the university’s part to make sure that this gets funded,” he says. “We know how important this is to the state of Arizona.”

Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, a Phoenix Democrat and a member of the JCCR, says political disagreements, rather than economics, have caused the delay.

Referring to Republican members of the committee, she says, “I think that if they put it on the agenda, it will pass. But because of ideological reasons, including their feelings about the University of Arizona and the medical school, they won’t put it on the agenda. It’s ridiculous.”

Despite some lawmakers’ objections to the project, there is a chorus of support, including economic and educational interests.

Brett A. Jones, vice president of operations with the Arizona Contractors Association, says the project represents a huge potential windfall for the state and should have been initiated months ago.
“This item has been put off for the past three months,” Jones says.

“The project is estimated to have a $2.1 billion economic impact for the state annually. What amazes me is that we hear legislators talk about jobs and job creation. However, there is no action on this item, which would create 5,300 on-site jobs and another 1,800 indirect jobs.”

Stuart Flynn, dean of the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix, sees the growth of the medical school impacting the state for years to come.

“There’s an immediacy to the project in the jobs it would bring to build the facility,” Flynn says. “But in the long term, there are huge benefits for decades, in the training of the next generation of health care providers – important for the state of Arizona, which is sorely lacking in its numbers of physicians, nurses and pharmacists, when compared with the national average.”

By increasing space, the University of Arizona’s College of Medicine in Phoenix could boost its enrollment from 48 students per year to 120 studying general medicine, with approximately 80 others studying pharmacology.

By turning out greater numbers of physicians, the state would also increase its national health care stature, supporters say.

Former state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jaime Molera, now representing the Board of Regents, says the project is a critical component of Arizona’s medical community.

“This project is vital – not just to Phoenix, but to Arizona,” he says. “A lot of other elements are dependent upon the success of this expansion.”

Those elements include the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) in Phoenix, and facilities focusing on cancer treatment and pharmacy. Other economic interests supporting the project include the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Greater Phoenix Economic Council (GPEC), Molera says.

For now, supporters are rallying behind the project and hoping that the review board can quickly establish a compromise and move forward with construction.

Despite the holdups, Flynn acknowledges the need for proper review of the project.

“I think that when all is said and done, everyone will be pleased that the project was vetted and scrutinized to this level,” he says.

Bravo, of the UofA, says he is confident committee members will recognize the critical importance of the medical school, noting that, although the building officially will be called University of Arizona Health Sciences Education Building, it represents a unique partnership between the three state universities.

“This project is so multi-faceted. It’s producing physicians and impacting the economy. It’s taking care of Arizona,” he says. “And that’s the mission of the College of Medicine – to take of our citizens.”

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