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Malloy Crafting Grander Plan For UConn Health Center Expansion

$900 Million Project Would Create Thousands Of High-Skilled Jobs

Rick Green

May 13, 2011

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is preparing an ambitious proposal to renovate and expand the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington, creating thousands of bioscience, medical and construction jobs.

Where more modest efforts have failed, Malloy envisions a $900 million engine to power a region battered by job losses and a changing economy.

The new development, sources close to the project say, will emphasize bioscience research and include expansion of outpatient care at the hospital, as well as laboratory space designed to attract federal dollars and private industry. Both of UConn's medical and dental schools would grow significantly, expanding the health center's role in the region.

Thousands of jobs also would be created during the construction of a new patient tower, renovations of existing buildings and other new facilities.

Colleen Flanagan, a Malloy spokesperson, said a significant proposal "is in the works" and an announcement will be made within weeks.

The project is substantially larger than last year's failed $362 million plan and double the size of a proposal that failed two years ago. It would include public as well as private funding sources. About $300 million in state bonding has already been approved for the hospital, but substantially more would be necessary.

Malloy's proposal is the sort of investment that should have been made years ago, but it's a risky move for a governor embroiled in a state budget crisis. Far smaller efforts have failed to win support or the required funding.

The best argument for this plan is that we have little choice. It's an industry that will create high-skilled and well-paid jobs for the next generation as Connecticut's aging manufacturing jobs fade away and other states surge ahead of us.

"If you don't do something like this, there is almost no prospect that you are going to change the economic trajectory of the state,'' said Fred Carstensen, director of UConn's Center for Economic Analysis. "The Hartford region has one of the worst prospects in the nation."

The project likely will have research ties to Yale University, which is aggressively expanding its own bioscience and medical initiatives. With a major research university in Yale, combined with UConn, experts say Connecticut could emerge as a leader.

"We have some things that set us up to do well in the 21st century. But we have to capture the global attention that other places already have," said Matthew Nemerson, director of the Connecticut Technology Council. "The governor has to be on the big horse saying, 'This is what I want.'"

A growing bioscience industry isn't going to happen on its own. Look no further than Pfizer's decision earlier this year to slash 1,100 jobs and shift hundreds of employees to Cambridge, Mass., a research-and-development hub. Industries of the future aren't going to stay here, or come here, unless something is happening.

Connecticut, remember, has had virtually no job growth for the past two decades.

Malloy's initiative must address the long-festering problem of what to do about the aging UConn Health Center campus while also pushing the state toward an economy that produces high-paying jobs. The project aims to create more than 16,000 jobs over the next 25 years.

The last UConn hospital proposal, a $362 million initiative, imploded when UConn failed to win a $100 million federal grant late last year. A nearly $500 million proposal in 2007 and another one in 2009 met stiff opposition from local hospitals.

It is unclear how local hospitals and state employee unions will respond to Malloy's grander plan. The health center, plagued by financial problems in recent years, will have to become more profitable.

Malloy would need legislative approval and hundreds of millions of dollars in new financing from the sale of state bonds. One significant change this time around, I'm told, is that the project now includes substantial private financing, which might make this big ticket deal more palatable.

Oz Griebel, CEO of the Metro Hartford Alliance, said Malloy must build on a partnership that includes both business and our universities. This model has worked successfully in other states, including Georgia, where incoming UConn President Susan Herbst has led the effort to bring university research and the private sector together to create jobs.

"When you look at our history, it is about intellectual capital. We don't sit on major natural gas fields or precious metals we can mine. Connecticut has made its mark through intellectual capital and invention," Griebel said. "If you are not in this game, you are left behind in this economy. ''

Malloy's costly plan is a substantial risk. It's also one that we must take.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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