Medical College Opening in Southwest Virginia

Central Appalachia will have a new medical school when King School of Medicine opens in Abingdon, VA in a few years. The school will both create jobs and economic development, but also help to address a shortage of medical professionals and services in the region. Bristol News has the story.

King School of Medicine moving forward

By: Debra Mccown

Medical students will likely begin attending classes here in 2013 or 2014, King College President Greg Jordan said Friday.

That’s when the new King School of Medicine and Health Sciences Center is expected to open in the Stone Mill business park off Interstate 81’s Exit 14 in Abingdon.

Officials from the college, Washington County and the town of Abingdon gathered Friday to sign an agreement detailing their commitment to the project, which, according to the college, could ultimately have an annual economic impact of $1 billion.

The announcement that the project is moving forward comes two years after Jordan first articulated his vision for a medical school in Southwest Virginia – and about a year after the town and county offered financial support if Abingdon was chosen as its location.

Deal signed

On Friday, the town and county formally committed to help fund the project, which is also expected to receive $25 million from the Virginia Tobacco Commission.

The county and town each agreed to commit $7.5 million to the project, with the county’s contribution being given in cash and the town’s coming in the form of 36 acres of land and $3.5 million.

King College also has an option to purchase 15 adjoining acres from Highlands Union Bank.

When the Washington County Board of Supervisors voted to approve the agreement Friday, Chairman Dulcie Mumpower responded with one word: “Hallelujah.”

“There’s been a lot of challenges along the way that have been dealt with,” she said. “It’s kind of been like a roller-coaster ride.”

When the Abingdon Town Council followed with its unanimous approval, the vote was met by applause.

“It’s been a long two years,” said Town Councilman Jason Berry, “but a great day.”

County Attorney Lucy Phillips said the deal includes requirements that the college must meet before any public money is released – including a seven-year operating budget, updated as it goes forward, and meeting necessary milestones in the accreditation process.

Jordan said the former Johnston Memorial Hospital in downtown Abingdon will not be used for the project.

Food City recently announced plans to use the old hospital site for its new corporate headquarters, and Food City President and CEO Steve Smith said Friday that the new office building will likely open in 2013. Smith said progress will probably start next month to prepare the old hospital building for demolition, with construction of Food City’s new building to begin in early 2012.

Economic impact

Mayor Ed Morgan said the medical school announcement marked the start of “a new era in the history of Southwestern Virginia.”

Two years ago, he said, he was as shocked as everyone else when the Tobacco Commission endorsed the project, which then seemed like “pie in the sky.”

But with the potential to impact the region even a century into the future, town and county officials started talking about how they could attract the medical school.

“Given the scale of this venture, it’s probably remarkable that it came together in just two years,” he said.

Morgan said the town could expect to see some 200 jobs and $1.3 million in annual revenue from the project. He expressed pride in local leaders for thinking far into the future.

According to the college, the town will realize a $27 million economic impact to the town from construction alone.

“In challenging economic times, it is tempting for community leaders to think small,” he said, referencing the fast-food restaurants, big-box stores and truck stops that have presented themselves as controversial economic development projects in recent years. “What is far more difficult and far more productive is for community leadership to not be an ordinary place.”

With the medical school project, he said, town and county leaders have boldly taken hold of their destiny and resolved to make it a place defined by the arts, science, technology and medicine.

Mumpower said the medical school is the latest positive announcement for the community after the openings of a new hospital and regional artisan center along with the announcement that Food City will build its new headquarters in Abingdon.

“Through this agreement we are forever linked with Abingdon in making perhaps the most significant decision either of us has made in the history of our county and our town,” Mumpower said.

She said construction of the medical school is likely to bring $91 million into the county and 661 jobs. When the school is up and running, she said, the county is likely to see the addition of 250 jobs and, within seven years, a $26 million annual impact.

According to the college, in 10 years the county could see 489 direct and indirect jobs created by the medical school, with 108 jobs created for Abingdon.

“Studies show that potential economic impact for the region increases to as much as $1 billion once the school, an affiliated research campus and a medical corridor that is likely to develop around the medical school reach their full productivity by 2035,” according to a statement from the college. “Other benefits include new neighborhoods, schools, retail, banking and commercial opportunities to support the anticipated increase in population.”

Improving access

Jordan said part of the school’s purpose will be to help address the anticipated shortage of 6,500 doctors by 2020 in the southern highlands region of Central Appalachia.

That region includes more than 40 medically underserved counties and communities in Southwest Virginia, Northeast Tennessee, Eastern Kentucky, Western North Carolina and Southern West Virginia.

The vision, Jordan said, includes the chance to train medical providers committed to serving in rural areas.

“Our goal is to complement what the Quillen College of Medicine [in Johnson City, Tenn.] is doing … and to bring even more students to the region and to encourage them to practice medicine when they graduate in the region,” he said.

He said a part of the planning process also includes a network of clinics, operated on a not-for-profit model, to both train students and improve health-care access.

These, he said, will work with existing clinics and health-care providers to improve medical care access in areas with an expressed need.

Rachel Fowlkes, executive director of the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center, said her facility will partner with King and Virginia Highlands Community College to create a unique educational opportunity.

Students in the region will have the ability to graduate from high school, attend the community college, finish their bachelor’s degree through the education center and then go on to medical school, all within the same complex, she said.

“I believe things happen for a reason,” said VHCC President Ron Proffitt, echoing Fowlkes’ commitment to the way the three educational institutions might work together. “The importance of education has never been more critical than it is now, and the value of community members working together has never been more vital to our growth than it is today.”

“And right here in our region, the spotlight on medical education and the future of health care is brighter than it ever has been because of King College and what it is accomplishing in its move today.”

Local Cooperation

The medical school project also marks a new moment in town-county relations, after a planned joint project not so far in the past – the development of a joint sports complex – ended in a lawsuit when negotiations fell apart.

“I think the future is bright for our working relationship between the town and county,” said Mumpower. “We all need each other in order to survive.”

Morgan said town officials never could have predicted a decade ago when they invested in the Stone Mill park – primarily as a place to locate a small business incubator – that it would some day be home to a medical school.

“I do believe the town is going to be developing an additional business and technology park in the immediate future,” he said.