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Monday, 20 February 2012 09:43

Kalamazoo’s WMU Opportunity: As med school takes shape, business opportunities abound

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Kalamazoo’s  WMU Opportunity: As med school takes shape, business opportunities abound PHOTO: Jeff Hage

KALAMAZOO — Few communities ever get the chance to transform their downtowns with an immediate influx of highly educated people, but Kalamazoo hopes to do exactly that with the creation of the Western Michigan University School of Medicine.

WMU plans to capitalize on a perfect storm for medical education with the creation of its new med school in downtown Kalamazoo. If the School of Medicine succeeds, it could prove to be the tipping point in the downtown’s transformation and serve as a much-needed catalyst for entrepreneurs seeking to meet the needs of a new demographic of people in the heart of the city.

In 2010, WMU filed a letter of intent to create the medical school, adding some select staff through mid-2011. In December 2011, Mattawan-based MPI Research announced it would donate its 330,000-square-foot building — known as Building 267 from the Upjohn days — at the northwest corner of Lovell and Portage streets to the university to house its med school.

To accommodate the med school, university officials said they would have to extensively renovate and slightly expand the facility. Renovation will begin early this year, with a completion date of mid-2014, in time for the first entering class in the fall semester of that year. The university selected a Detroit-based contractor to perform the work.

Research expected to attract outside funding

The move to create the med school coincides with the implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. While the federal act has many intangibles attached to it, what’s certain is that medical knowledge and technology continues to advance – at a clip outpacing both government policy and the medical education curriculums at U.S. institutions.

Dr. Hal Jenson, founding dean of the WMU School of Medicine, said he believes these factors put WMU in the unique position to build a medical school and take advantage of a changing health care market.

The school doesn’t expect to welcome its first class of students until the fall of 2014, but that hasn’t curbed developers’ and entrepreneurs’ interest. They see the creation of the school as opening up a wide range of opportunities for commercial business and supporting infrastructure in downtown Kalamazoo.

Studies for the American Association of Medical Colleges shows that every dollar invested in research at medical schools and teaching institutions results in $2.60 in related economic activity.

“Our research indicates that 46 percent of all health science research dollars are spent in communities with medical schools,” said Ron Kitchens president of Southwest Michigan First. “(The medical school) is one more important cornerstone of what we’ve been doing in the city.”

Kitchens said the medical school would be just another step in the 150-year legacy of health sciences development in the region. Not only that, but he said other opportunities lie in wait. Interest in commercial and residential developments continues to percolate, but prospective parties are holding off investments until they see the institution grow roots financially.

“There hasn’t been a week gone by where developers outside the community want research,” Kitchens said. “They’re not bringing a checkbook with them quite yet, but they’re kicking the tires.”

As plans for the med school move forward, Kitchens said one of downtown Kalamazoo’s challenges — and an opportunity for entrepreneurs — lies in making the area a 24-hour district. Right now, most businesses in the downtown run from 16 to 18 hours per day. Kitchens said he anticipates more convenience and drug stores and food and beverage retailers will be needed to satisfy the needs of all the students congregating at and around the school.

Since the announcement of the medical school, investors have been eyeing the housing market, Kitchens said. Conservatively, between 50 and 100 new housing units will have to come online.

“Planning, funding and construction is already going on,” he said.

Support infrastructure

Downtown Kalamazoo Inc., which has been involved in a number of reinvestment projects in the downtown area, is also gearing up to help respond to the adjacent development the medical school could spark.

“Most critical going forward is the residential impact of the med school,” said Vicki Kettner, community relations manager at DKI. According to Kettner, research indicates that a person who lives and works downtown spends two to three times more in the downtown environment than someone who works downtown but lives in the surrounding neighborhoods.

With the expected influx of new residents for the downtown, Kettner said investors have shown increasing interest in formerly idle residential properties and in opportunities for commercial investment.

Kettner said DKI’s retail incubation program would help provide support dollars to new businesses if they fit the criteria as an underserved retail business. DKI looks at whether the company can show a need for its services or whether its presence would show the potential for significant return to the community. If DKI approved, new businesses could receive rent subsidies and mentoring help through 18 months of start up.

DKI would also like to see the eventual conversion of one-way traffic to two-way traffic in the downtown. However, redeveloping the primary arteries of the downtown poses a multi-million dollar cost and will proceed only after securing community buy-in, Kettner said.

“Primary and secondary streets would be affected,” she said. “For us, as planners, we need to continue putting focus on those conversions.”

Moving students back and forth from the WMU campus to downtown — and developing a transportation system from the Edison, Vine and Northside neighborhoods to the med school — remains one of DKI’s top priorities. Kettner said creating “synergy” among these surrounding areas would help strengthen support for new development downtown.

“The long-term hope is enormous private development, an increased tax base and job creation,” she said. “Ultimately, we want to see more people on the sidewalks.”

Docs, funding needed

It’s expected by the year 2020 that Michigan will have a shortage of approximately 4,000 physicians, said WMU’s Jenson. Demand for physicians is up, he said, and WMU hopes to give those wanting to enter the medical field more opportunities.

Nationally last year, med schools admitted only 18,000 of the 24,000 med school applicants, Jenson said. WMU hopes to capitalize on that limited space by giving more candidates a chance to enter med school, he said.

Jenson, who has been a part of the medical education community for more than 30 years, expects renovations on the former Pfizer building to cost between $60 million and $70 million. He said the school has already used up most of the anonymous $100 million lead gift, and the project will need to look for additional funding.

With public funding for educational institutions continually being slashed by the state, the project opted instead to rely completely on private donations. Jenson said WMU wants the medical school to be independent of other programs. The university does not want to shift money away from other programs to fund the med school. WMU is seeking philanthropic contributions to help build an endowment to ensure the school’s success.

“Right now, securing economic sustainability is the biggest challenge to the accreditation process,” Jenson said. “There are really four parents of this med school: the university, Bronson and Borgess hospitals and the community.”

In the current atmosphere, those involved with the project say trying to build a medical school from the ground up is a huge transformative endeavor, but one that could have certain advantages.

One such upside is the ability to adapt to health care reforms taking shape in the nation. In a September 2010 speech announcing the school’s plans, WMU President John Dunn said the federal reforms would result in millions more people becoming part of the nation’s health care system.

Second, the Carnegie Foundation, whose Flexnor Report had outlined the guiding principles in medical education for the last century, released a new report in 2010 calling for a reform in how medical schools and residencies operate. Because the field of medical knowledge and technology continues to grow rapidly, the authors pushed for earlier implementation of clinical experiences and team-based approaches in training.

Jenson said the new WMU medical program would be set up using best practices from industry and education. For the first two years of classes, students will receive pass/fail grades, though standards for performance will remain high, he said. The school will also look at team grading, where a group of students only scores as high as the lowest-scoring individual. Jenson said students become better learners with these incentives. “Decompressing” the volume of information doesn’t shortchange students, he said.

To supplement learning, Jenson said simulation training would also play a large role in the program.

Ultimately, the university wants to fill the pipeline with qualified graduates in the hopes of shoring up the state’s eventual physician shortage, he said.

Tale of two med schools

As one Michigan-based medical school looks to begin, another seeks to expand its research potential.

In late January, the board of trustees at Michigan State University approved the $12 million purchase of the former Grand Rapids Press building and five surrounding parking lots, two of which are on riverfront parcels.

MSU hopes to eventually expand its College of Human Medicine to the property, just down the Michigan Street hill from its current campus. To begin with, however, the university expects to use the Press property to alleviate cramped parking at the CHM.

Dr. Jeffery Dwyer, associate dean for research at CHM, said MSU thinks the program could double or triple over the next several years, and the Press property would be an ideal location for an expansion. In particular, the school could expand research laboratory space into the newly acquired property.

“We expect the process of investigating and working through various options for the building to begin very shortly,” Dwyer said. “Among the things considered is addressing our long-term research lab space needs.”

The college continues to recruit principal investigators, with a focus on neuroscience, Parkinson’s disease and women’s health.

“If there was a question before about the ability to bring some of best scientists in the world to Grand Rapids, that question has been answered,” Dwyer said.

MSU has also expressed interest to expand its medical education program in Flint, according to published reports. A developer in early February announced it had purchased the Flint Journal building — formerly home the Grand Rapids Press’ sister publication, with the intent for it to serve as the site of an expansion of MSU’s CMH program in Flint.

The WMU and MSU medical schools also crossed paths in February with the announcement that MSU’s Kalamazoo Center for Medical Studies approved a merger of the program into the WMU School of Medicine.

Under the terms of this merger, KCMS operations, programs, personnel, and facilities will be wholly merged into and become part of the WMU School of Medicine. The transition was set to begin July 1, 2012.

“This collaboration means Kalamazoo will now have the full continuum of medical education from medical school, residency training, and on into continuing medical education,” Scott Larson, Bronson’s SVP for medical affairs and chief medical officer, stated in a release.

CHM faculty will maintain their MSU faculty appointments, and the CHM will control its curriculum while its students continue medical training at MSU/KCMS through June 2014.

The KCMS program has been in place for 39 years and has trained more than 700 medical students and more than 1,400 residents.


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