By REID TUCKER
It’s been more than two years since the 12,000-square-foot Coy Burgess Loop medical facility known as Microspine closed its doors.
Almost immediately DeFuniak Springs’ elected officials began trying to find a new tenant for the property, which once housed what was among the most advanced laser surgery centers in the world and employed about 80 people. As of November 2013 those efforts have officially paid off, as the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine finalized its plans to open a LECOM School of Dental Medicine and patient clinic on the property by March of 2015.
LECOM Board of Trustees member and former Florida legislator Durell Peaden was joined by state District 5 Rep. Marti Coley and representatives of local governments and agencies on Nov. 14 in hosting a walk-through at the site of the forthcoming medical school. DeFuniak Springs’ proximity to major population centers in northwest Florida and southern Alabama and the former Microspine property’s location near Interstate 10 made it an ideal choice for the new medical school, said Peaden. One of LECOM’s primary objectives since opening in 1992 has been to provide rural areas with highly trained medical service providers, and the DeFuniak campus will do that while also giving local students access to high-quality medical education as well as growing the local economy, he said.
“DeFuniak Springs might be the smallest town to have a medical school, but you don’t have to have a big box to get a good education,” Peaden said. “You can have a little box with a lot of good people in it. [Northwest Florida] is on the cusp of being where Orlando was 25 or 30 years ago, and education will be a vital part of it. I think that our school systems will benefit from the first grade through graduate school.”
Based from its primary campuses in Erie and Greensburg, Pa., LECOM also has pharmacy school in Bradenton, Fla., and, taken altogether, has surpassed the University of Illinois’ medical school in terms of student population and size. LECOM’s main campus dental program opened in July of 2012 with an inaugural class of 100 students on a three-year track, and those first-year students are already providing patient care at the school’s clinic in Bradenton. More than 40 first-year students so far have signed on to complete their 48-week primary care clinical rotations in DeFuniak Springs beginning in the fall of 2015.
Once it opens, the DeFuniak Springs campus will have 30 dental treatment rooms as well as a separate wing dedicated to general medical care. Students, working in two shifts and under the supervision of licensed dental faculty, are expected to be able to treat upward of 150 patients per day. The LECOM clinic will offer services to all patients, even those who lacking sufficient insurance coverage, which will help ease the $88 million burden place annually on Florida’s emergency rooms for the treatment of preventable dental conditions – all for roughly 60 percent less than customary rates.
The LECOM School of Dental Medicine is also estimated to provide 24 new and relatively high-paying local jobs, including at least one full-time dentist and 12 part-time dental faculty members. DeFuniak Springs City Councilman Mac Work played a major role in bringing LECOM to DeFuniak Springs, and liaised with Peaden and other college officials to get the project where it is today. He said the combination of better local dental care and the opportunity to employ more local people will pay huge dividends for the city in terms of its economic development.
“It’s going to be a great project for DeFuniak,” Work said. “It will be an absolute godsend to healthcare in the area and it will have a big economic impact for us. There’s a large population of people in this area and surrounding counties who are in need of the services that LECOM is going to provide.”
As for the building itself, construction project manager Robert Cadenhead called it a “fantastic find” from the time he began working on plans last November until their finalization a few weeks ago. Many of the existing doors, fixtures and other materials will be able to be retained or reused while the structure’s physical size and electrical layout lend themselves to a quick and smooth transition, he said. Furthermore, the surrounding property comprises another 17 acres open for development should the need arise in the future.
No estimate on the total cost of the renovation is known at this time.
By REID TUCKER