The University of North Florida wants Palm Coast to be its hub for an innovative, regional higher education pipeline from its classrooms to health care facilities in Northeast Florida, with AdventHealth, the Flagler County school district and Allette Energy in Town Center all playing key roles.
Fully realized in Palm Coast and tying into existing companies and components, UNF’s initiative means that a Flagler County student could go from Flagler Palm Coast High School’s medical flagship to Daytona State College for a nursing degree, to UNF’s satellite for a four-year degree, to AdventHealth Palm Coast for a career–all within walking distance, while living possibly in the new housing complexes going up on Allete Energy land in Town Center: Allete is one of the partners with UNF’s initiative.
The University of North Florida Board of Trustees met in July to discuss and approve its $23.8 million legislative budget request for next year. The request goes to the university system’s board of governors in October. If approved, it moves on to the Legislature this winter.
UNF’s approach would be the first of Florida’s university system, regionalizing a classrooms-to-careers approach that taps into both the Flagler school district’s six-year initiative along those lines and the much broader medical jobs sector, expected to continue to produce more jobs than there are workers to fill them. UNF’s initiative would help fill that need.
The entire request is focused on what the Jacksonville-based university is calling UNF Medical Nexus, what it’s branding as UNF MedNex. The university asks: “How can UNF become the leader and catalyst for solving the need for high, quality healthcare professionals in NE Florida in a way that is both innovative and uniquely UNF?” The answer: “Creation of the nation’s first comprehensive, university-based medical/healthcare nexus, UNF MedNEX. UNF will be at the center of the NE Florida healthcare enterprise connecting healthcare providers with UNF students, faculty, and researchers.”
The university would partner with hospitals, cities, rehab centers, healthcare companies and others, providing education, scholarships and degrees in highly sought-after sectors: “By creating the first university-based, comprehensive medical nexus in the country, UNF seeks to benefit the region, state, and beyond through a transformative interdisciplinary, interorganizational, and experiential-based focus on healthcare learning, leading, and innovation.”
Look past the jargon, not too deep into the university’s 20-page proposal, and you see this: UNF turning Palm Coast into a hub of its own, with a UNF MedNex presence in Town Center anchoring the university’s partnerships. Those “spokes” would reach out from the hub and across Flagler, into Volusia and St. Johns–all from the Palm Coast base.
The proposal–which the board of trustees approved and sent to the board of governors–is explicit: “UNF’s first connection outside Duval County and Jacksonville will be Palm Coast/Flagler County. A public-private partnership is in development with the City of Palm Coast, AdventHealth, Allete Energy, and Flagler County Schools.” (Allete is the largest land owner in Town Center and is developing apartment complexes there.)
In other words, UNF’s innovation would match up with Palm Coast’s Innovation District in Town Center.
City officials, Mayor Milissa Holland, Rep. Paul Renner, school district and UNF officials, among others, have been discussing a UNF partnership in general terms for two years. The concept grew over time into the concrete proposal the board of trustees approved on July 29. Locally, no parts of the plan have been discussed in open meetings by any of the local elected boards yet, most of whose members, with the Palm Coast City Council’s exception, have not been appraised of the plans by their administrations.
In interviews this week, Holland, City Manager Matt Morton and the district’s Lynette Shott, executive director of student and community engagement, confirmed the outline of Palm Coast’s and Flagler’s roles within the larger plan.
Holland had gotten the idea of Palm Coast’s innovation district at a national conference of mayors more than two years ago. A higher education institution is a cornerstone of such districts. “I started looking at geography, how we were positioned, what would make sense from a university standpoint, and a lot of our priorities have aligned with Northeast Florida for many years,” Holland said. She developed a proposal, with UNF in mind, and approached Rep. Paul Renner, who’s originally from Jacksonville and whose district includes all of Flagler. “Without question, within two seconds of me mentioning UNF he said, let’s do it,” Holland recalled.
The concept turned into a hub-and-spokes of its own as discussions began and partners accrued, with an initial dialogue that included the former university president in Palm Coast’s offices, then surviving the change-over from one president to the next at UNF. “During the initial conversation Jacob Oliva came in to present how important this was,” Holland said, referring to the former school superintendent, now a vice chancellor at the state Department of Education.
It became clear that even as Palm Coast sits in the center of a 60-mile radius within which 1.9 million people live, “there was definitely a void that wasn’t being addressed from an educational standpoint.” UNF’s interest grew, with appreciation for the idea of a “pipeline” from high school classrooms to higher education classrooms to work.
From the school district’s perspective, “we’re always looking at what is the next piece in the structure where it’s just seamless,” Shott said. The UNF concept “just continues to create that seamless, strong pathway for our students, so it’s very exciting.”
AdventHealth’s role locally and regionally was important, with five additional hospitals in Volusia. “It really became a regional conversation, truly,” Holland said. “It’s never veered from the region, it’s always taken in consideration how we look at advancing Flagler County, Volusia County, St. Johns County, Puntam County, Brevard County,” aligning all the medical employment opportunities in the region. “This is important because Advent came to the table and they’d made a commitment to invest in this conversation. But they also said what’s good for us is good for the region, and they never saw this as this is just about Advent. This is bringing jobs to the students who can become gainfully employed and remain in Flagler County and live and grow their families here.”
The details of UNF’s plans are still developing ahead of the board of governors’ October meetings (a workshop in early October, a decision meeting in late October). But the concept is clear.
“The idea is that what they’re calling MedNex will basically be a training ground here that will synergize with the existing nursing program at Daytona State that’s offered locally,” Morton said, “but take that two-year program to a four-year program right here in the city, provide a feeder pipeline of medical professionals that will serve the region, because the concept is that they’ll be incentivised to stay in the region, so we’re going to train and keep people here to help ourselves, and they want to be located here in Town Center.”
The location of UNF’s hub hasn’t been determined yet, though Allete Energy has committed to building the structure that UNF designs, Holland said. There’s plenty of private and some public land in Town Center. UNF wants to be in close proximity to AdventHealth, whom the university sees as a partner in next-generation medical practice and technology. Nurses in UNF’s program would get their rotations at AdventHealth and would be trained in a simulation lab provided by the hospital. (The university’s budget request includes $8.7 million for simulation labs.)
“In a perfect world, you’d come out of the flagship medical at the high school,” Morton said, referring to the new medical flagship at Flagler Palm Coast High School, “you’d go to Daytona State College for your first two years of nursing school, your biology, your basic nursing, you’d graduate from Daytona State with your Associates of Nursing, you’d then fall right over into the University of North Florida right here a mile away in Town Center, a couple of miles away, and you’d get your bachelor’s of nursing or similar advanced degree.” Shott described it as “building 360 degree career support around our kids,” rather than fragments of plans. The “hub and spoke structure” is UNF’s description of the larger plan.
Morton echoed much of the way UNF President David Szymanski summed up the goal of MedNex to nine trustees on July 29. The initiative would seek to address the demand–and shortage–for nurses and other healthcare support service professionals while giving students the chance to graduate and get jobs in their region. Disciplines would include nursing, rehabilitation, counseling, nutrition, hard sciences, medical engineering, analytics, psychology, computing and ethics training. The average starting salary for these jobs, upon graduation, would pay $76,000.
Demand will only increase, because there’s a projected decline in the population of those between 18 and 21 nationally, and a projected major drop within that cohort in 2025, according to UNF’s analysis, with a 5.4 percent decline in freshman enrollment across Florida. That all points to a shortage of graduates prepared to take a surfeit of healthcare jobs.
The focus in Palm Coast would start with nursing. It would not likely be without some cost to taxpayers.
“Their proposal is going to state a number,” Morton said, “$1.5 million from the City of Palm Coast. They’ve hinted to us that that would be their request. Because the money they don’t have is construction money.” (The state’s Public Education Capital Outlay coffers, known as PECO, are limited.) Holland confirmed the sums discussed, saying should the council approve, the Town Center Community Redevelopment Agency could be the source of the money. The city would contribute it to the university’s capital needs, such as “classroom development,” in Holland’s words.
UNF’s proposal as approved in July doesn’t yet include the request from Palm Coast or any financial breakdowns addressing partners, though it may do so by the time it reaches the board of governors. It does break down the $23 million overall request into recurring funds that the Legislature would have to be prepared to award ($12.8 million) as opposed to one-time funds of $11 million. The recurring money would pay for 24 new faculty positions and 11 support positions, and $2.8 million in recurring scholarships.
But all of this could come to nothing, at least this year, if the board of governors doesn’t approve the initiative in October. (The board’s facilities and budget committees meet in workshop at the University of Central Florida on Oct. 3, the full board meets at the University of Florida in Gainesville on Oct. 29.) The process can be intensely political, rife with pitfalls. Even then, the proposal must go before legislators, survive committee after committee, make it to the governor’s desk, and there, survive a veto. It’s an arduous process. But officials are confident that if the stars aren’t aligned, at least the legislators are: with Renner climbing the House leadership and Gov. Ron DeSantis’s northeast Florida roots, UNF MedNex has friends.
The initiative is also designed to appeal to the sort of plan the board of governors and lawmakers like to support: it is heavily regional, heavily focused on high-demand educational fields, and has economic development written all over it. Its realization in Palm Coast would overshadow much of what, say, the county’s economic development department has accomplished in a decade of modest hits.
“I think it’s essential for the county, I think it’s essential for the community,” Morton said of MedNex. “We talk a lot in terms of economic development and what does that look like. I’m not aware of many things that have a longer lasting, more significant impact, both in terms of immediate and longevity, as educational institutions, especially secondary education–your Daytona State Colleges, your UNFs. When those organizations decide to make those moves, it’s a big deal, it’s a really big deal. They bring jobs, they bring education, they bring ancillary industry, they bring a presence that attracts investment. It’s what it is: it brings in population. These become big operations to local economies.”
There’s hope of bringing Flagler Beach, Bunnell and the county to the table. “Once the conversation takes place at the Oct. 3 workshop and a formal vote is taken on the 29th,” Holland said (referring to the board of governors’ meetings), “we will have a public conversation as far as how we engage other partners, meaning other municipalities, the county, to advocate for this moment for us to secure this opportunity for the county. I mean, this is going to take all of us. It’s not going to be just Palm Coast coming in, this is going to be a community effort.”
“It’s taken us a lot to get here,” Holland said, “This is not about Milissa Holland or Paul Renner. this truly is about elevating the competitiveness of the university system in the state of Florida, and this has been our conversation collectively throughout this process. It’s grown into something that’s quite extraordinary, but it’s never been about the personalities in the room.”