Exclusive: Mercer confirms plans to open medical school in downtown Columbus

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A combination of public and private funding in excess of $25 million has paved the way for Mercer University to open a four-year medical school in Columbus, News 3 has learned.  

Mercer University President Bill Underwood confirmed during an exclusive interview Monday morning that the university is moving forward with plans to open a medical school campus in downtown Columbus as early as August 2021.

 “It is happening because of the leadership in this community that was determined to make it happen and saw it as something critically important to the future of the community,” Underwood said. “And, then did what it took to bring this day to pass.”

A formal announcement organized by the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce is being planned to take place in the next two to four weeks. Columbus people involved in the project have declined to comment and deferred all questions to Underwood and Mercer at this point in the process.

Underwood and others from Mercer met with Columbus stakeholders Monday morning, outlining details for the four-year medical school that will bring up to 240 medical school students to the new campus. There will also be an undetermined number of Ph.D and graduate school students working with a team of about 30 research scientists and as many as 75 faculty and staff, Underwood confirmed.

The new medical school is a partnership between Mercer University, which has a medical school on its Macon campus, the Columbus philanthropic community, and the state of Georgia, Underwood said.

A private fund-raising effort in Columbus secured more than $14 million and a former Synovus building on 11th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.

“That is a substantial gift,” Underwood said. “The community raised the necessary funds for the facilities.” 

In the most recent Georgia General Assembly session, the state committed $9.3 million.

“The final piece was to assure we had state funds to move forward with this endeavor,” Underwood said. “Because our School of Medicine is a partnership with the State of Georgia, the General Assembly and the leadership of the General Assembly saw the merit of this project and included the money in the supplemental budget. And, Gov. Kemp assigned the budget.”

Because the state money was in the supplemental budget, it is immediately available to Mercer University to move forward with the project.

The state is involved because the new medical school will train doctors to work in rural areas.

“They will be practicing in rural and medically underserved areas of our state,” Underwood said. “Given that Southwest Georgia is the most underserved area of Georgia, we think it’s going to be a tremendous benefit to this region as well as the entire state “ 

Underwood said this idea originated nine years ago with four Columbus community leaders, three of them with strong connections to Mercer.

“Jimmy Elder, Tom Black, Richard Smith, and Pete Robinson said that they believed that Columbus needed a medical school,” Underwood said.

Elder is pastor of First Baptist Church and served on the Mercer Board of Directors. Black, who has since passed away, was a Columbus philanthropist and life member of the Mercer board. Robinson is an Atlanta attorney, former state legislator, Columbus resident, a Mercer law school graduate, and a Mercer board member. Smith is a Republican state representative from Columbus.

“They said it was the largest urban area in the state that didn’t have one (a medical school),” Underwood said. “And, southwest Georgia is the most medically underserved region in the state. They believed there was a correlation of this region being underserved medically and the absence of a medical school campus.” 

Underwood outlined three things that had to happen for the medical school to become a reality.

The initial step was to locate third- and fourth-year medical students in Columbus in 2012. That was to test the waters, Underwood said. Mercer signed agreements with the two major Columbus hospitals for clinical rotations. 

“The first step is determining if there are adequate, quality clinical rotations for medical students,” Underwood said. “And, through that process, we have determined there are.” 

Columbus then had to raise private money for the facility and the General Assembly had to step up with state funding.

Underwood was careful to point to the collaborative effort by the private donors, governmental leaders, Chamber of Commerce, and the local hospital community that includes Piedmont Columbus Regional and St. Francis Hospital.

“They have gotten it done,” Underwood said.

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