UCF College of Medicine ... it's only the beginning

An aerial photo shows the UCF Medical School campus and the infant stages of Orlando's "medical city." (JAMES HOBART, MACBETHPHOTO.COM / July 31, 2009)

Just off State Road 417 in south Orlando, a meandering boulevard lined with saplings offers a rare glimpse of hope amid an otherwise cloudy Central Florida economy.

After a mile's drive, the building blocks of a new Medical City are falling into place, framed by streets with names such as Exploration Boulevard and surrounded by hundreds of acres of open land adjacent to the upscale Lake Nona community.

The region's new biomedical industry reaches a milestone Monday as UCF's College of Medicine — the heart of the project — welcomes its first 40 students. They will meet in temporary digs at the home campus till the new building opens next year at Lake Nona.

Overall, the sprawling development — and its estimated $2 billion in construction work — is a compelling sight amid the nation's worst recession since the Great Depression. The vigorous activity is a stark contrast to the double-digit unemployment that has hit Florida and the U.S. during the downturn.

And the emerging complex is already creating jobs in a health-care sector that has been one of the few to hold its own despite massive job losses in many other fields during the past two years.

It was more than a job that attracted Dr. Philip Wood, a diabetes and obesity researcher for the Burnham Institute's $80 million research unit, which opened in April. It was a chance to be in on the ground floor of something special.

"This was just a once-in-a-career opportunity to be part of the launch of something with such a strong plan," said Wood, an author, researcher and former genetics professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "Once UCF's medical school and everything else is in place out here, there is going to be a tremendous synergy."

Joining Burnham later this month, the UCF medical school's biomedical research unit is set to open on the school's $100 million medical campus at Lake Nona.

Elsewhere, a construction crew works on the Nemours Children's Hospital. And just last week, the Department of Veterans Affairs awarded its first contract to begin work on a new VA Medical Center. Both are scheduled to open in 2012.

"It is surprising how fast this is happening," said Rasesh Thakkar, managing director of Lake Nona developer Tavistock Group, which donated land for the UCF and Burnham facilities. "The level of excitement regionwide is palpable."

But the 700-acre biomed project is as much about the future as it is the present. Thousands of empty acres surround the nascent complex — plenty of room for residential, retail and office development.

Organizers hope it becomes an economic dynamo, generating billions of dollars in activity, tens of thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in new tax revenue for Florida. Such a bonanza is quite possible within 10 years, according to a study commissioned by UCF earlier this year and conducted by Tallahassee-based Arduin, Laffer & Moore Econometrics.

But exactly how does a Medical City become a Silicon Valley? That is one of the big questions even as the long-awaited vision plays out amid the drag of a sour economy.

"This recession is unlike any other; it is not going to just blow over. It is going to be felt at least through another generation of Americans," said Angelos Angelou, an economic consultant based in Austin, Texas, who has studied Central Florida's economy for the Metro Orlando Economic Development Commission.

"Many jobs lost in the manufacturing sector are never really going to come back," he said. "There will be new jobs, however, in growth areas such as biomed and biotech. So from that perspective, this [medical city] is a well-timed investment for Orlando."

The future is now

Some of the hoped-for economic impact will be inevitable. The highly paid work force alone would have a ripple effect in the local economy. UCF's med school alone will employ more than 350 — its payroll topping $40 million.

Likewise, Burnham plans to have 300 at full staff; the VA hospital, more than 2,000, while Nemours projects 1,900 direct and indirect jobs. The M.D. Anderson Cancer Research Center and University of Florida will also have operations there.

All together, the major players will employ close to 5,000 doctors, scientists, researchers and other support staff.

UCF said it already has seen the early stages of a biomed cluster in the six years since it established the Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences, now the research arm of its new medical school.