Med school money sought

Two Central Texas lawmakers to seek up to $200M in initial funding for UT-affiliated campus

By Mary Alice Kaspar
Austin Business Journal Staff
September 8, 2003

Two Central Texas legislators plan to push for millions of dollars in state funding to build a medical school in the region that could spawn 50,000 jobs in less than a decade.

State Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Taylor, says he and state Rep. Jack Stick, R-Austin, will work during the 2005 legislative session to secure funding for a biotechnology center -- with a medical school as its foundation. Sources familiar with the plan estimate the legislators will seek $100 million to $200 million in initial funding.

"It would be one of the biggest things ever done in Central Texas," Krusee says.

As envisioned, the University of Texas-affiliated medical school would be nestled among hospitals, drug companies and research centers.

Krusee says the Robinson Ranch might be an ideal setting for the biotech center. The ranch spans 7,000 to 7,500 acres bounded roughly by FM 1325, Parmer Lane and RM 620 in northern Travis County and southern Williamson County.

"I think if the size, location and the terms of a land deal with UT were satisfactory, a use of this type would be a good thing," says Spike Robinson, one of the owners of the ranch.

Krusee says the proposal is aimed at helping the local economy to flourish.

"If you don't have a medical school, you're at a real disadvantage for recruiting the private industry," Krusee says.

Krusee says that unless the Austin area attracts a medical school, associated research dollars, companies and jobs will continue to be lured to other areas, such as Raleigh-Durham, N.C., San Diego and Seattle.

"Other cities will win every time if we don't have a medical school," Krusee says.

Krusee says discussions about the initiative are under way with representatives of UT, the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and Gov. Rick Perry's office.

Last month, the Austin Business Journal reported plans by representatives of University of Texas System and local health care providers to increase the number of doctors and medical students trained at Austin hospitals and clinics. Talks include the possibility of UT's flagship Austin campus joining forces with the UT Medical Branch in Galveston to offer M.D. and Ph.D. degree programs.

Such efforts could lay the groundwork for establishment of a UT-affiliated medical school in the Austin area, according to UT System representatives.

But local leaders such as Charles Barnett -- chairman of the Austin chamber and senior vice president of St. Louis-based Ascension Health Inc., the Seton Healthcare Network's parent company -- say it might be too early to conclude the area needs a medical school.

Krusee says he's aware of the challenges associated with the proposal.

"Jack [Stick] and I are probably moving faster than people are used to moving in Austin, and I think that's a good thing," says Krusee, adding that the next year and a half will be spent gathering support for the project.

Stick couldn't be reached for comment.

Stick sits on the House Appropriations Committee, which deals with budget matters, while Krusee is chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

Jon Roberts, managing director of Austin-based TIP Strategies Inc., says the notion of a medical school in Austin is politically sensitive. That's because Roberts says that with a finite amount of research dollars, "what one person gets, the other doesn't."

If Austin were to build a medical center, it would add a leg to Texas' health care power structure, Roberts says. Now, Dallas, Houston and South Texas are the state's dominant medical centers, he says.

Statewide competition aside, Roberts says a medical school would be beneficial for the Austin area.

"Most of the successful biotech parks try and link themselves with a medical school," Roberts says. "That's where you get your R&D [research and development]."

Without a medical school, R&D activity is difficult to land, Roberts says. That aspect of the medical and biotech industries brings high-paying jobs and new products, he says.

"Just like the semiconductor [industry] is in danger of going offshore, the same holds true for the biotech," Roberts says. "We want to be more than manufacturing."

Email MARY ALICE KASPAR at (makaspar@bizjournals.com).