Lake Nona’s Booming Medical City Lets Central Florida Redefine Itself.
In 1964, unknown buyers began quietly assembling thousands of acres of swamps, groves and pastures south and west of Orlando. The sophisticated stealth of the operation, combined with the apparent willingness of the local daily newspaper to keep secrets, allowed the Walt Disney Company to lay the groundwork for an entertainment complex that would thrust Orlando onto the world stage and define its image for decades to come.
For better or worse — and on balance, most would agree, it has been for the better — modern-day Orlando is in large part a Disney creation. But Disney was an invader, albeit a benevolent one, setting its sights on a desirable geographic location, surreptitiously securing a beachhead and even setting up its own governmental structure to protect its interests from nosy locals.
But if Disney was done to us, the so-called Medical City development at Lake Nona was done by us, and for us. The effort to redefine Orlando as an international destination for leading-edge medical research, education and treatment has been a carefully managed, brilliantly coordinated local effort involving politicians, developers, educators, philanthropists and boosters.
“If this all works according to plan, as I suspect it will, two things will happen,” says Rick Weddle, president and CEO of the Metro Orlando Economic Development Commission. “It will be a best-practices model for how local, regional and state governments — the triple helix of economic opportunity — can work together to get things done.”
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Just east of Orlando International Airport sits Lake Nona Golf & Country Club, a 7,000-acre, master-planned community that’s now home to nearly 10,000 residents. About 650 acres is an emerging $2 billion medical campus, including a medical school, research laboratories and hospitals.
The project has powered forward at warp speed and pretty much according to plan, despite a national economic collapse that stopped growth in its tracks elsewhere. And it all began with a high-profile failure.
In 2003, then-governor Jeb Bush announced plans to use government incentives to attract large biomedical companies — and their high-paying jobs — to a state where tourism had always powered the economic engine. The Scripps Research Institute, based near San Diego, accepted $579 million in grants to open a location in the state.
In an effort to lure Scripps to Orlando, the Tavistock Group, a private investment firm that owns Lake Nona and much of the surrounding property, set aside about 650 acres and proposed creating a medically oriented complex encompassing retail stores and housing.
After all, doctors were already favorably disposed toward Central Florida. Since the early 1990s, the region had hosted roughly half of the medical conventions held in the United States, according to EDC statistics. Scripps even tentatively accepted a proposal of more than $500 million in grants to relocate to the Lake Nona area.
But in the end, the institute reneged — in part because Orlando lacked a medical school — and relocated to Jupiter, an affluent, midsized city in Palm Beach County. Nearby Florida Atlantic University launched the Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine, which now offers a dual M.D./Ph.D degree in conjunction with the institute’s Kellogg School of Science and Technology.
The loss stung, but Orlando boosters learned from the experience and began looking for another opportunity. Three years later, that chance came when the Burnham Institute for Medical Research — now renamed the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute after a $50 million donation from billionaire T. Denny Sanford — agreed to build a campus somewhere in Florida in exchange for a $310 million incentive package.
Concurrently, the University of Central Florida won approval from the Florida Board of Governors and the Florida Legislature to build its own medical school. Tavistock, which donated 50 acres on which the school could be built as well as $12.5 million in cash, challenged the community to raise an additional $12.5 million. That $25 million was doubled via a matching grant from the state.
In all, enough money was raised to launch the school and pay tuition and living expenses — worth about $40,000 per year per student — for all 41 members of the school’s inaugural class.
That kind of grass-roots commitment appeared to clinch the deal for Sanford-Burnham, which is based in La Jolla, Calif. The institute’s $85 million, 178,000-square-foot facility, which opened in 2009, is now home to the Diabetes and Obesity Research Center and the Conrad Prebys Center for Chemical Genomics screening center.
Sanford-Burnham’s Lake Nona campus, which employs 160 people including 110 research scientists, is now hiring additional scientists and support staffers to focus on treatments for cancer, Alzheimer’s and other diseases. In its first year, it attracted $40 million in research grants.
“We’re attracting top-level scientists who come from well-established institutes or universities, many of which are located in metropolitan areas such as Boston or Dallas,” says Deborah Robison, the institute’s communications director.
UCF’s medical school is also thriving. It enrolled 80 students in 2011, 100 students in 2012 and expects 120 in 2013. Enrollment is slated to top out at 485. As of the 2009-2010 academic year, when fewer than 1 percent of applicants were accepted, it was rated the most selective medical school in the U.S.
The adjacent Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences houses UCF’s Department of Molecular Biology and Microbiology, the Biomolecular Science Center, the Medical Laboratory Sciences Program and the Pre-Health Professions Advisement Office.
The medical school’s first phase consists of a 130,000-square-foot instructional building and a 60,000-square-foot library. The Burnett School’s facility is 113,000 square feet and serves 2,500 degree-seeking students. The two programs employ more than 500, with as many as 800 anticipated at full enrollment
The hoped-for Medical City clustering effect further accelerated when the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center Orlando’s Research Institute moved from downtown Orlando to the top floor of the Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences.
“There’s a lot of room for collaboration and synergy when you have so many institutions so close to one another,” says Dr. Clarence Brown, president of the center. “It’s very exciting. Brown expects that his staff of 25, which includes 10 researchers with doctoral degrees, will work closely with neighboring facilities on cancer research.
The University of Florida, based in Gainesville, is also adding its formidable resources to the Lake Nona mix. In 2010 UF broke ground on a $40 million, 100,000-square-foot Research and Academic Center in Medical City.
“Our university is very receptive to creating programs outside of Gainesville,” says UF spokesperson Joseph Kays. “We believe the players involved at Lake Nona are capable of making this a major research center, and I’m sure the folks are hopeful there will be many more spinoffs from the work they do.”
The first floor of UF’s multilevel facility will house its Institute on Aging — a program that studies, among other things, drug interactions in the elderly — as well as the UF College of Pharmacy, which will relocate its 200 students from Apopka to Lake Nona next June.
Dr. Lawrence J. Lesko, professor of Pharmaceutics and director of the Center for Pharmacometrics and Systems Pharmacology, says the center’s researchers will focus on diseases such as Alzheimer’s, looking for revolutionary treatments to help the nearly 500,000 people in Florida each year who are diagnosed with some form of dementia.
“We’ll be designing chemical trials on the computer and integrating data from literature and other failed trials to help find a new drug,” Lesko says. That’s significant, he adds, because the FDA has not approved any new Alzheimer’s drug since 2002.
And that’s not all. Through the UF Institute of Therapeutic Innovation, also housed in UF’s Lake Nona facility, researchers will focus on identifying new treatments for cancer, diabetes and other diseases. Noted clinical pharmacologist Dr. George Drusano and his entire staff are relocating from New York to Lake Nona specifically to study infectious diseases.
“If I was 20 years younger, you wouldn’t see me in Gainesville,” says Dr. William Millard, the College of Pharmacy’s executive associate dean. “I’d be down there. We can have the students interact with research and faculty, and develop a lot of collaborative interactions with the idea that directly across the street from us is a biotech park.”
Another major Medical City anchor will be the Orlando Veteran’s Administration Hospital, slated to open next year. The $665 million, 1.2-million-square-foot facility will encompass 314 beds, including 22 intensive-care beds and 40 mental-health beds. A 60-bed domiciliary will provide assisted living and other services to economically disadvantaged veterans.
The hospital’s 2,000-plus employees will care for more than 100,000 veterans per year, virtually all of them Central Florida residents, say officials. In addition there’ll be a medical simulation center and a research unit focusing on diabetes and obesity, which are problems disproportionally impacting veterans.
“Medical City was a very big driver for this hospital,” says Courtney Franchio, a VA spokesperson. “One of our missions is education and research, so to co-locate with these other facilities is ideal.”
Finally, Nemours, a major pediatric healthcare provider with a hospital in Wilmington, Del., and clinics throughout Florida (including Orlando), New Jersey and Pennsylvania, has chosen Lake Nona for a 95-bed, 630,000-square-foot hospital.
Nemours Children’s Hospital, now under construction on a 60-acre site, is the not-for-profit organization’s first major hospital in the South.
The Lake Nona facility, which is expected to employ about 800, will include healing gardens, nature trails and pet therapy areas for patients. Construction is already 60 percent complete, and the entire cost of the project — $380 million — will be funded by the private Nemours Foundation.
“No tax money and no philanthropic dollars will pay for the brick and mortar,” says Josh Wilson, senior manager, public and community relations for Nemours Florida. Once the hospital opens, Wilson adds, Nemours plans to create an endowed chair to raise funds for future research in children’s health.
In fact, just about the only type of medical treatment, research and educational facility not found in Medical City is a dental school — but that isn’t for a lack of trying.
The three state universities that want to either build new dental schools or expand an existing one — UCF, UF and Florida A&M — were urged in early October by the Florida Board of Governors, which oversees the State University System, to explore some sort of joint agreement.
UCF had wanted to build a new 394-student College of Dental Medicine as an adjunct to its medical school. But at the same time, Florida A&M University was seeking to start a dental school to train minority dentists, while UF was pushing to expand its nationally ranked dentistry program in Gainesville. At press time, the outcome was unknown.
With or without a dental school, the investment required to assemble the components of Medical City has already generated a significant return — and will continue to do so for decades to come.
An economic impact study by Arduin, Laffer & Moore Econometrics in 2008 found the UCF College of Medicine, combined with a life-sciences cluster, could create 30,000 jobs with $2.8 billion in annual wages, generate $460 million in annual tax revenue and spur $7.6 billion in annual economic activity for the region.
“Since 2005, there’s been $2 billion in active construction on site,” says Rob Adams, vice president of marketing for Lake Nona. “From the infrastructure we put in, to the hospitals, the research institute and medical school.”
But even more important than Medical City’s economic impact is this: The next major advances in the diagnosis and treatment of mankind’s most vexing diseases may very well originate in our own backyard. And that’s truly invaluable.