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This aerial view highlights three of the projects at Medical City: the Veterans Affairs hospital, center; UCF Medical School and MD Anderson Cancer, left, and Nemours Children's Hospital, right.
This aerial view highlights three of the projects at Medical City: the Veterans Affairs hospital, center; UCF Medical School and MD Anderson Cancer, left, and Nemours Children's Hospital, right.
Photo credit: courtesy of Lake Nona

Healthcare Market Profile: Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford

A medical city: In Orlando, first-rate healthcare destinations bloom from cow pasture

By Andis Robeznieks
Posted: July 25, 2011 - 12:01 am ET

Thirty-five years ago, the spot was a cow pasture. Today, it's home to a new medical school and bustling construction zones. Thirty-five years from now, it's hard to predict what will be there—except that it will probably be bigger than anyone planned or projected.

Born out of a failed effort to recruit a new East Coast branch of the Scripps Research Institute and an $80 million investment in infrastructure, Orlando's Medical City at Lake Nona kept developing through a time of economic uncertainty and is now moving forward at a speed that's exceeding all expectations. “It's absolutely incredible to see how quickly it's coming out of the ground—especially during the time of an economic downturn for the whole nation,” says Kathy DeVault, the city of Orlando's business outreach and international affairs coordinator. “It was once essentially cow pasture and it's being turned into a medical destination.”

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So while Palm Beach got Scripps, on a 600-acre parcel of the 7,000-acre Lake Nona planned community east of Orlando International Airport, Orlando is getting or has already received the University of Central Florida College of Medicine, the Burnham Medical Research Institute (now the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute), MD Anderson Cancer Research Institute Orlando (on the UCF campus), Nemours Children's Hospital, Orlando Veterans Affairs Medical Center and University of Florida Health Sciences Campus.

“The term ‘cluster' has become overused, but—from an economic development perspective—the idea is not only the caring for of patients, but how do we connect what we are doing to additional entrepreneurial activity?” says Donna Arduin, president of the Tallahassee-based Arduin, Laffer & Moore Econometrics consulting firm and the state budget director under former Gov. Jeb Bush.

Arduin says the idea of a cluster came up during the effort to recruit Scripps, but such a development needs a medical school to be built around.

“The medical school—it was critical, it was really the missing ingredient,” she says. “Then the dominos started to come with Burnham.”

Classes began for the school's inaugural class of 41 students in August 2009, and last July they moved into the school's new $65 million, 170,000-square-foot education building.

The 50-acre campus also houses the Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences, whose fifth floor is occupied by the MD Anderson Cancer Research Institute, which opened in October 2009. The campus will eventually be home to the UCF College of Nursing and the College of Dental Medicine, whose plan was just approved in May by the UCF board of trustees. Approval from the state's board of governors is still needed, but the school hopes to enroll 60 students in 2014.

Another significant aspect of the school's inaugural class, which will graduate in 2013, is that they will graduate debt free—thanks to a community fundraising effort that collected almost $7 million to cover the cost of their tuition. MD Anderson sponsored one of the scholarships, and spokeswoman Katie Dagenais says institute scientists are collaborating with UCF students on prostate cancer detection research. “We're there for a reason,” she says. “It's a perfect fit that furthers education while moving research forward.”

The 175,000-square-foot Sanford-Burnham facility opened in May 2009. Located on a 65-acre campus, the 1.2 million-square-foot, $665 million Orlando VA Medical Center is scheduled to be completed in the fall 2012. It will contain an outpatient clinic, 134 inpatient beds, a 120-bed community living center and a 60-bed residential rehabilitation center.

The new 635,000-square-foot, $380 million Nemours Children's Hospital is on a 60-acre campus and is set to open next year with 95 beds but room for up to 139.

Ground was broken in October for the University of Florida Research and Academic Center, a $44 million, 100,000-square-foot facility that is expected to be completed next summer and include a pharmacy college, a research unit of the school's Institute on Aging and a drug development institute. Medical City faced one of its first setbacks when Gov. Rick Scott erased $6 million in funding for the UF facility that the Legislature had approved, but Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer doesn't expect the cut to delay construction.

“We can all agree the Medical City would have benefitted from the $6 million that was appropriated for the University of Florida project,” Dyer says in an e-mail. “Fortunately, due to other funding sources and the incredible synergy and support at Medical City, the project's construction will not be stalled or delayed.”

About 400 people work in Medical City facilities now, DeVault says. But after the VA and Nemours hospitals open next year, that figure will jump to 4,000. By 2017, Medical City is expected to employ 30,000 people and generate $7.6 billion in annual economic activity.

It is expected to spur more residential and commercial development as well as help anchor Orlando as the nation's No. 1 destination for medical conferences. According to DeVault, the city has held that position for some 12 years, and Dyer expects that to continue.

“During the next 35 years, the Medical City will grow to be the nation's crossroads of medical research and innovation and will define Orlando as one of the world's greatest medical destinations with a unique mix of residential, business and education,” Dyer says. “The Medical City will be a place where answers to some of medicine's most complicated questions are revealed.”

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