Since the Florida Legislature approved its budget and the governor signed it into law, what had until then been known as the University of Florida’s MedNex initiative in Palm Coast’s Town Center has grown an “us.”
It’s now MexNexus, an appropriate enough appendage to a name representing a hub within a hub: with the university at its core, MedNexus assembles an array of partners–Daytona State College, Palm Coast government, AdventHealth Palm Coast, Allete Energy, the Flagler County School district and others–to build what is intended to become a health-care education hub that will produce professionals in nursing, rehabilitation, counseling, nutrition, health sciences, medical engineering, analytics, psychology, computing and ethics and fan them out to clinics, hospitals and medical offices in Flagler, Volusia and St. Johns counties. The first course offerings will be available in January, online only (because of the pandemic), the first nursing class in Fall 2021.
The initiative is the brainchild of UNF President David Szymanski, who’s wanting to position UNF as a medical-education powerhouse in the center of Northeast Florida emergence as a national hub of health care institutions. But MedNexus Palm Coast is the product of Palm Coast Mayor Milissa Holland, who in Rep. Paul Renner’s words “played a critical role along with the Palm Coast City Council” in landing the satellite for UNF. “This is a testament to what happens when we collaborate and how we can bring transformative improvements to our community.”
At noon today at the Palm Coast City Hall, MedNexus passed a new milestone as Szymanski, Renner, Daytona State College President Tom LoBasso, Holland and others masked up and gathered for what amounted to a ribbon-cutting marking UNF’s arrival in Palm Coast and the signing of a memorandum of understanding between UNF and DSC.
It was not a coincidence that the occasion was marked at Palm Coast City Hall, Holland’s ground, in recognition by state, university and college leaders of the role she played. The ceremony’s timing didn’t hurt, either: Holland is in a tight race for re-election. But the initiative she’s been spearheading (and that her opponent, Alan Lowe, supports) had long transcended turfs or partisanship, which is partly what helped it secure state support. If the timing was hard to miss, there was nothing contrived about what Palm Coast is getting.
“Getting through a lengthy legislative process and respecting the ultimate signature of the governor,” Holland said–MedNexus survived $1 billion in vetoes by the governor this year–“we had yet to get to this point to officially recognize this as a project that has now become a reality in our community. That’s moving forward at an accelerated pace.”
The (socially distanced) ceremony at City Hall, the mayor said, took into account the “the true collaborative nature that this will offer.” And the economic-development factor was never far behind anyone’s remarks: as an economic-development initiative with spokes of its own stimulating the local economy in the future, no local government’s “incentives,” subsidies or other seductive lures to any one company had previously approached the consequential success and minimal risk anticipated by MedNexus: as an established state university and with an initiative that’s won the commitment of the University Board of Governors and the Legislature (and with Renner in line to be the House Speaker in 2022, when Flagler will not likely to suffer a drought of state indulgences), the initiative is here to stay.
“It’s transformative. It’s an exciting opportunity for all of us,” Szymanski said. “It’s an opportunity for UNF to grow and be transformative, reaching out to two-year institutions and other institutions and even reaching back as we think about this pipeline to the high schools because they will be absolutely critical to us. We’re going to make a difference with all of your help. As you hopefully can tell even though I have a mask on, I’m very enthusiastic about this adventure. This is a beautiful city, and if we can help the city grow and help them make a difference, that’s our greater addition — to really make a difference for everybody in this room.”
Palm Coast City Council members Bob Cuff, Nick Klufas, Jon Netts and Eddie Branquinho were all there, as were City Manager Matt Morton, Flagler County Commission Chairman David Sullivan, and Joe Rizzo, executive director of the Flagler County Education Foundation, the non-profit arm of the school district, Bunnell Mayor Catherine Robinson, Flagler Beach Mayor Linda Provencher, AdventHealth Palm Coast CEO Ron Jimenez, Renner and Sen. Travis Hutson, both of whom were instrumental in shepherding the project through the Legislature.
“I think everything we do as elected officials has to come back to how we make the lives of our citizens better, how we make our community better. That’s why we’re here today. I look around this room and I know everyone of you had a part to play in making this happen,” Renner said. “What I’m most excited about as we look at the MedNexus program is making sure that people can actually stay here in Flagler County, finish their education, and bring the highest level of healthcare professionalism to this area. The rest of it is lowering costs and improving access. We all want people to have the availability of healthcare. We also want it at the lowest cost possible so people can afford it. This program I believe will help us do that by creating a greater supply of high-quality individuals who will be ready to lend a hand and help those in our community with their medical needs. And also mental health which is a critical area.”
Hutson recognized the way all local governments, in a unique show of support, for the first time last fall had only one, joint request for their legislative delegation–instead of the usual separate wish lists–to support MedNexus. That show of community support carried weight in the state capital. Holland had been the architect of that coalition, too, working especially with her fellow mayors, with whom she has a close working relationship. “Mayor Holland,” Hutson said, “you were instrumental along with your fellow councilman and the County commissioners and the other mayors in terms of coming together. I have never seen so many people with different interests of their own communities make something a priority even though it may not have been directly coming into their municipality or county.”
LoBasso, the Daytona State College president, spoke of the college’s existing health-care programs, nursing chief among them, and the ongoing, $3.4 million renovation of the Palm Coast campus.
Daytona State College has an array of health science programs. Nursing is one of our big programs. About three years ago we saw the shortages and the needs and we identified Palm Coast as a growth area as well as our Deltona campus. “We’re going to be producing an additional 60 nurses out of our Palm Coast campus and 90 out of Deltona — those students will be graduating in 2021. That puts our total nursing program to 728 students,” the DSC president said, a number that should help alleviate what had been a deficit in local nursing needs.
Palm Coast government has set aside $1.5 million as its contribution for MedNexus’s start-up costs. Douglas Property and Development, a subsidiary of Allete Energy, is providing the land and building the UNF satellite. The exact location has yet to be determined, but Douglas Property President Jeff Douglas gave an idea. He was out of state today, but he said in an interview that “we are designing a state of the future physical plant that will anchor the region’s rise to leadership in medical education technology. The initial phase will anchor the Central Avenue corridor and compliment the initial phase of the Entertainment District.” Permitting plans are to be submitted by year’s end, and construction is set to start in the first quarter of 2021, Douglas said. (The building architecture itself evokes a touch of Eero Saarinen’s iconic TWA terminal at JFK Airport in new York.)
Douglas credited the initiative to “leadership and massive private sector investment, and clearly would not have happened save for Mayor Holland’s credibility and knowledge to bring major medical institutions, universities, private industry and the entire State Legislature together. DPD is honored to be involved in something that will likely touch every citizen in Flagler County and beyond for the better.”
What happens beyond that? UNF’s next request to the Legislature to underwrite the second phase of the initiative, Szymanski said, “which will be around genetic counseling and data analytics — to continue to build that out,” he said. The Legislature approved $6 million for the initial phase of what, earlier this year, Szymanski had pitched as a $23.8 million request. “Our request again is $6 million for phase 2,” the university president said, understanding that next year’s legislative requests will all be filtered through the state’s shrinking revenue because of the coronavirus epidemic. “We’re obviously going to see what the budget looks like and what’s going on in the state but we are looking at this as a four-phase request.”
Szymanski confirmed that the total request for the four phases would be $24 million. “Yep, but we’re going to run with what we have. We are not waiting for additional funding,” he said.
Hutson seemed confident this is going to survive and not be vetoed.
“Can you write that down?” someone asked to laughter.