New collaborative shapes medical district’s future

The Medical District Collaborative is a new nonprofit organization that will direct future development of the neighborhood with its core institutions leading the way.
The Memphis medical district provides arguably some of the most important work in the metro area at its various healthcare and higher education institutions.

But as those anchors conduct research, educate future medical professionals, find cures for rare diseases and heal the sick, they also in many ways do so on their own islands.

In the coming months, the work of a new unified effort should start to come to light as a plan to transform the district begins to take shape. Leaders of many of the city’s health care and educational institutions have come together to form the Medical District Collaborative, a nonprofit organization that will direct future development of the city’s medical district.

“The biggest challenge has been knocked down and that’s getting the anchor institutions to come together and meet on a regular basis,” said Tommy Pacello, President of the Medical District Collaborative. “The leadership they’ve shown, the speed with which that usually takes years to build that trust had already been put in place.”

The Medical District Collaborative will focus on four areas: improving the public realm and built environment, coordinating safety and security, activating and programming the district, and facilitating community development.

The district is roughly bordered by North Parkway to the north, Interstate 40 to the east, Vance Avenue to the south and Danny Thomas Boulevard to the west. It encompasses hospitals, medical technology and innovation entities, centers of higher education and residential neighborhoods.

What makes this effort different from ones in years past is that this has been led by the anchor institutions themselves. The board’s leadership is Chairman Gary Shorb, CEO of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare; Vice Chairman Dr. Kennard Brown, Executive Vice Chancellor of the University of Tennessee Health Science Center; Treasurer Dr. Betty Sue McGarvey, President of Baptist College of Health Sciences; and Secretary Dr. Lewis Reich, President of Southern College of Optometry. Board members are Richard Shadyac Jr., President and CEO of ALSAC; Dr. Reginald Coopwood, President and CEO of Regional One Health; Dr. Tracy Hall, President of Southwest Tennessee Community College; Dr. Steve Bares, Executive Director of Memphis Bioworks Foundation; Pitt Hyde, Trustee with Hyde Family Foundations; Doug McGowen, Chief Operating Officer for City of Memphis; Terence Patterson, President of Downtown Memphis Commission; Scott Blake, President of Victorian Village Inc. Community Development Corp.; and Mike Todd, President of EDGE Neighborhood Association.

“Rather than having a plan that looks great you now have a community development organization tasked with the implementation of that strategy that’s funded,” Pacello said. “That allows you to do the work. Another piece is overall this strategy is different than a lot of revitalization plans. A lot of times you have land use, but not a lot of execution strategy. It’s a vision document. The theory behind an anchor strategy is it leverages economic impact of the institutions to attract private sector investment.”

An anchor strategy starts with the acknowledgement that the institutions are massive economic generators in their own right with specific missions of education, health care or research. Those organizations want to see safe streets and parks, good schools and a vibrant business community in the neighborhood, but adding those missions dilutes the core values of the institutions. So the collaborative effort is to strengthen the area between the anchors.

In all there are eight institutions with 16,000 employees, 8,000 students and a collective $2.7 billion operating budget.
The University of Tennessee Health Science Center is probably more connected to the other health care institutions of the district for the simple fact it educates many of the city’s homegrown medical professionals.

“Cooperation is critical,” said UTHSC’s Brown. “A number of our faculty work at St. Jude. We’re intricately integrated in the fabric of St. Jude. Being able to work with St. Jude, being able to support things Jason Little does at Baptist, talking to Reginald Coopwood and how trauma surgeons work, Meri Armour (at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital) about pediatric surgeries; recruiting the talent to come to Memphis to do that, there isn’t any greater responsibility or anything as rewarding as playing a role in that.”

Brown said he believes there is a lot of long-term possibilities for the medical district. Conversations with developers about building housing is part of that, but it’s also about bringing in restaurants and other resources to the neighborhood, he said.

“We want the medical district to become a continuation of Downtown that connects to Overton Square and Crosstown and Cooper-Young so Memphis doesn’t become these disjointed communities,” he said. “We think we play an important role.”
Pacello said the timing makes sense for the district based on the activity in those other growing neighborhoods in Downtown and Midtown.

“Downtown has been on an upward trajectory for the past 10 to 15 years and Midtown is waking up and clicking on all cylinders,” he said. “It became more and more obvious the medical district is a place people are passing through. Look at the stuff happening in the district on campuses of institutions. It’s remarkable.”

The question became how to take what is considered a pass-through area and turn it into a vibrant linchpin of activity between Downtown and Midtown.

Some noticeable changes should be obvious by May. Those include taking care of grass growing in sidewalks, cleaning up trash and taking care of street lights that need to be replaced. Pacello said he expects cleaning crews with vacuum trucks and maintenance work to take care of the public realm. The changes will be subtle, but it will lead the way for developing a strategy that includes the consideration of wider sidewalks, and the placement of planters and street furniture.

Looking years down the road, many of the anchor institutions control an abundance of land that’s used for parking. Pacello said the question becomes how can some of that land be repurposed to bring back some of the housing for the neighborhood.
Only 2.7 percent of the district’s workforce and 6 percent of the students live in the neighborhood. But with 2,500 new hires and 1,300 new students on an annual basis, there is an opportunity to capture people as they are making those life transitions. New housing stock would have an available market.

A Buy Local program will look to leverage some of the spending by institutions that can be kept in the district.

Looking ahead, relationships and communication will be key to the effort’s ultimate success. But those relationships are already underway in ways to make the district a world-class neighborhood.

For example, Brown said UTHSC and Regional One Health began discussions a couple of years ago about a $200 million project to build a women and infant’s pavilion that would sit near Regional One. Those partnerships are important to the district’s future, particularly as the partner organizations help battle health epidemics that plague the community.

“We have an infant mortality problem in West Tennessee,” Brown said. “We challenge some developing countries. One thing the governor talks about is improving the overall health of the state. Having a women’s and infant’s facility to do high-end breast care, pelvic center and all the complex needs women have, we want to have that kind of facility in Memphis. We want to be that destination place where any woman in the state wants to come to us. … Making Memphis one of these destination places for medical tourism, there is no reason it can’t be that place.”

And there’s no reason the medical staff performing those procedures can’t have options to call home in the community, restaurants to dine in and clean and safe streets to travel.

Read more articles by Lance Wiedower.

Lance is a veteran journalist with more than 16 years of experience in newsrooms in the Memphis area as a reporter and editor, including most recently as managing editor of The Daily News. He regularly contributes to The Daily News, including a biweekly travel column, The Daily Traveler. 
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