Meet the Plan: Medical Center of the Americas campus open for discussion
by Sito Negron
Posted on August 15, 2008
Almost 10 years in the making, depending how it's calculated, the Medical Center of the Americas will hit a key stage over the next several weeks as the master plan outlining general land use for more than 200 acres is vetted in public.
A schedule approved by the City Plan Commission Thursday tentatively sets the first public meeting on the plan for Aug. 21, with a follow-up Sept. 10 and Sept. 11, at which time the Commission might issue a recommendation for the City Council.
The plan is one element of building a medical campus that incorporates public and private health providers, researchers and, potentially, suppliers. It is a centerpiece of the regional economic development plans that include the expansion at Fort Bliss, the Camino Real Regional Mobility Association, and the Downtown Plan.
While many other elements will go into building the campus – such as recruiting and organizing public and private entities – the master plan is considered a key step, because it sets the concept within a physical framework.
"We only have one opportunity as a community to do this correctly and we need to be strategic about where assets are placed. We also need to think through all of the amenities, all of the challenges, and all of the infrastructure needs we will be facing in advance of having to face them," said El Paso County Commissioner Veronica Escobar, whose precinct includes the MCA area. She is one of several public officials who sit as honorary members of the MCA board, and has been involved in the project since she was a staff member in the administration of former Mayor Ray Caballero, who served from 2001-2003.
Ironically, controversy over the plan then was one of the factors in a public backlash that swept Caballero and his supporters from office in 2003.
The major concern then was the prospect of the city using eminent domain to secure property for the campus. While it was unclear whether or how eminent domain would be used, political opponents of Caballero used the issue to stir up fears.
This time around, the plan has broader support and has been more public. While it has not been widely reported in the media or been fully displayed through community meetings and other venues, it has been shown in various neighborhood gatherings and can be viewed, in preliminary form, at the MCA website.
Other public officials joining Escobar as honorary members of the MCA board are state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, state Rep. Norma Chavez, and city Rep. Emma Acosta, all of who represent the MCA area.
The MCA board, which oversees the not-for-profit MCA Foundation, has 10 members, not including the honorary public officials.
The Foundation's goal is to be "keeper of the vision," as expressed on the MCA website:
"The mission of the MCA Foundation is to improve access to quality healthcare in the Paso del Norte Region by building a better healthcare infrastructure, providing superior healthcare educational opportunities, and attracting/retaining researchers and healthcare providers to the region.
"The MCA Foundation will work to master plan and facilitate the development of an integrated campus of medical facilities adjacent to the new and expanding University Medical Center at Thomason and the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center – Paul L. Foster School of Medicine – the first new medical school in Texas in over 30 years and the first medical school ever to be built on the US/Mexico border.
"This cluster of properties including hospitals, educational programs, research laboratories, medical office buildings, healthcare related non-profit organizations – along with a new free-standing non-profit children’s hospital – will build the MCA on the same level as some of the finest medical centers in the country."
What will be under discussion in the next few weeks is the Phase 1 of the master plan, said Emma Schwartz, who serves as executive director of the MCA Foundation.
She said that planning began in April, 2007, and was mostly completed by February. Since then, she said, the plan has been shown to donors, institutional partners, and residents of the nearby neighborhoods.
The cost for the plan was about a quarter million, half of which came from the city of El Paso. The city gave the MCA Foundation $250,000, and the Hunt Foundation gave $500,000.
Phase 2 of the master planning process will look in more detail at infrastructure issues, such as drainage and traffic.
The size of the campus has not been determined, but the study area included 228 acres and assumed at least 50 years to build out, Schwartz said.
Escobar said the MCA is trying to learn from other medical centers.
"Some of the challenges other medical centers are facing have to do with lack of planning far enough into the future, so we want to look forward 20 years, 50 years, and 100 years so we anticipate as many of our needs as possible," she said.
When asked to characterize the significance of the master plan, she said, "I would say this is a significant step. What follows will be different types of challenges, but it was important to think through how we want to grow and how we should grow.
"The next challenge will be probably more significant because we then will have to start to tackle some of the issues head on. The railroad is a big challenge. We have to start thinking through land acquisition. We need to recruit businesses and other health care assets to the area."
The area is generally between Alameda and Interstate 10, with a railroad in the middle. In addition, the Raynolds overpass splits the Thomason side from the new Texas Tech School of Medicine. And there are drainage issues from the nearby Spaghetti Bowl and Durazno/Saipan area.
Emma Acosta, the city representative for the district, said in an NPT questionnaire during her election campaign that generally, "I support the Medical Center of the Americas. Additionally, I support the growth around the surrounding area. I also support encouraging new businesses and restaurants to relocate to the surrounding area including the development of housing for medical students."
City Rep. Susie Byrd, who worked with Escobar in the Caballero administration, said that the MCA represents "a fundamentally different approach to economic development than we've had in the past. I'm very excited about the very significant institutional and business leadership lining up behind this project."
She said key to the project will be the public vetting process: "Over the long term we'll have to decide what the vision is and how as a community we support the vision."
A look at the project through the NPT archives:
-- Coming Soon, A Push for the Unified Medical Campus, Posted on March 20, 2006: "One of the most ambitious economic development projects in El Paso's history, mired in politics and semi-moribund for the past couple of years, is about to reemerge. The project, the Medical Center of the Americas, would cluster medical assets in the area now dominated by Thomason and Texas Tech."
-- Medical Center of Americas Coming into Focus, Posted on April 17, 2006: "The project is picking up steam, with more details made public at a meeting of the mayor’s Medical Cabinet April 12. The city will be asked to help fund a master plan, to begin in September and be finished in March, 2007. Meanwhile, Tech and Thomason proceed with their growth plans."
Hunt Family Foundation Donates $500,000 to MCA, Posted on August 3, 2007: "The Hunt Family Foundation has donated $500,000 to the Medical Center of the Americas Foundation. The following is a news release regarding the donation."
UTEP and the MCA, Virtually Partners Despite Missed Opportunities, Posted on September 14, 2007: "For the second time since UTEP signed on as a partner in the proposed medical center in the late 90s, the UT System has decided to place a major health-related asset on the UTEP campus instead of the Medical Center of the Americas, a site anchored by Thomason and Texas Tech in Central El Paso. But this time, the MCA has its own momentum."
Hunt and Shapleigh on the MCA and the Nursing School, Posted on October 12, 2007: "An exchange of letters -- two from this week -- between business leader Woody Hunt and state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh sheds light on some of the issues involved in building a medical center in El Paso, and that medical center's relationship with UTEP."
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