The University of North Florida’s plan to build a satellite presence in Palm Coast’s Town Center as a feeder of health care practitioners to regional hospitals and clinics is a go as the $6 million dollar MedNex initiative survived Gov. Ron DeSantis’s veto pen today.
Securing what will be the first university hub in town is a major coup for Palm Coast government and it anchors the city’s plan to develop Town Center as an innovation district built around education, health care and the arts. The city pledged $1.5 million to the project. The coup is a particular victory for Mayor Milissa Holland, who championed the initiative and teamed up with UNF President David Szymanski, House Rep. Paul Renner, Sen. Travis Hutson and the school district’s Lynette Shott, among others, to land it in the city.
“It is funded. The governor did not veto it,” an almost breathless Holland said by phone in mid-afternoon. She was awaiting a call from Szymanski. “I spoke with our lobbyist, Matt Brockelman, he assured me that yes, it survived the governor’s veto pen, and yes it is funded for Phase one in Palm Coast.”
MedNex’s survival is especially remarkable amid $1 billion in DeSantis vetoes today as the governor signed the state’s $92.2 billion into law. A sizeable part of the vetoes affect lower income and poor people: the State Housing Initiative Partnership, which subsidizes lower-income people’s housing costs, lost $225 million.
“Who would guess that little Palm Coast & Flagler County could time travel to the future of medical & technical education,” Jeff Douglas, president of Douglas Properties & Development, one of the key partners in the MedNex initiative, said in an email this evening. “From retired citizens to our youth, this shining light will benefit the entire community and is already created sizable medical & employment interest. Major credit to the Mayor’s vision & tireless effort in the face of extreme adversity. Most, if not every other mayor I know would have walked away when faced with the enormous time and personal capital needed to make MedNex a reality.”
A few local projects did not fare well, among them Daytona State College’s Critical Nursing and Health Sciences program in Palm Coast, which lost $895,000 (an irony, considering the program’s tie-in with MedNex), $1.8 million for behavioral health services in Flagler, $900,000 for Flagler Beach’s sewer plant, and $200,000 for flood-management in western Flagler County.
For MedNex in Palm Coast, the first of three phases is a $6 million appropriation, with groundbreaking in the next few months on a property yet to be determined. The property is to be provided likely by Douglas Properties or Allete Energy in Town Center, Holland said. Meanwhile, UNF is looking at potentially starting classes as early as January in temporary locations, depending on how the coronavirus emergency limits possibilities. It could be online classes, small, in person classes or a hybrid.
“We never lost sight of the goal in two and a half years we’ve spent advancing this project through a very cumbersome process,” Holland said. “To have it funded today in the middle of a global pandemic that our state is continuing to battle is just a tremendously successful outcome. But it’s one I’m very proud to be part of, such a collaborative process, one that took a lot of very skilled, strategic partners that really cared at the end of the day for career paths for so many students in northeast Florida.”
Holland said earlier this month a conference call brought together Wally de Aquino, the Chief Operating Officer at AdventHealth Palm Coast–a major partner in the MedNex initiative–along with the hospital’s chief nursing officer, Douglas, Szymanski and others to start moving the project in anticipation of an appropriation. Douglas is meeting with the university’s design team to understand space needs and start constructing a facility. AdventHealth is meeting the head of the university’s nursing program to identify clinical rotations through the AdbentHealth system. The hospital is also providing a simulation lab.
“The city will be moving forward with our continued participation, continuing to foster relationships with the different hospital systems to make sure we’re clearly aligned with Daytona State College and the flagship program at the high school, the medical flagship,” Holland said in reference to Flagler Palm Coast High School’s medical flagship.
Phases two and three of the MexNex initiative won’t have to go through the same legislative approval process. The phases will go through to the University Board of Governors’ process, but not as a new project. It’s been appropriated legislatively as implying recurring funds. “We knew this was going to be a three-year ask, this is year one,” Holland said.
It’s not yet clear what the city’s $1.5 million contribution will fund–whether in providing classroom space, operational expenses or underwriting faculty costs.
The hub–the university has been reluctant to call it a campus just yet–will be drawing on nursing and other students in health care fields from Volusia, St. Johns, Putnam, and Flagler counties, and redistribute those students as health care professionals back to the region’s clinics and hospitals at a time when health care is expected to be in critical need of new practitioners.
“This was an area I was very passionate about,” Holland said. “I believe it’s truly how economic development should happen in communities. Of course I feel very very proud at this moment.”
She and Douglas stressed that the initiative benefited from the support of Renner and Hutson ” to structure,” Douglas said, “a cutting edge public/private partnership that looks to be the national model that Governor DeSantis and his staff pushed for.”
University budgets suffered a slew of vetoes, but the college and university system’s overall budget rises to $4 billion and will not require tuition increases. Everglades restoration will get a $322 million infusion. Florida Forever, the state’s conservation and recreation lands acquisition program, will get $100 million.
“Our current economic landscape is vastly different since the Legislature passed this budget in March,” DeSantis said in a statement on the budget. “This budget reflects a steadfast commitment to Floridians by safeguarding important investments in key areas including education, the environment, infrastructure, public safety and more.”
The budget includes $500 million to raise the minimum K-12 teacher salary to $47,500 and increases per-student funding to $7,793, or by $137 per student.