The Medical Center of the Americas, on its way, by many accounts, to be the national authority on Border and Hispanic health research, is a result of often contentious political struggles and a well-crafted strategy by the private and public sector.
In 1998, then Texas Attorney General Dan Morales, proposed that some of the $17.3 billion settlement with tobacco companies after a lawsuit with the state, be allocated for a Border Health Institute. The idea for the Institute had surfaced in a 1998 Economic Summit, in which El Paso leaders looked for solutions at a time when the city was in an economic identity crisis.
The mid-90s were not kind to El Paso's economy. Fort Bliss had shrunk significantly - losing to Fort Carson; the North American Free Trade Agreement had left the city without the once wide-spread garment industry; The El Paso Natural Gas Company, which at the time was the largest employer, had left the city; El Paso Electric was in bankruptcy; the cities two major banks were on shaky financial waters.
A Border Health Institute, that would consist of a medical school, research labs, would incorporate then Thomason Hospital as a teaching hospital, a Children's Hospital and private sector biomedical labs would bring high-paying jobs and be a much needed boost to a lagging economy, supporters believed.
There were some obstacles. At the time, Texas Tech in Lubbock completely controlled the Health Sciences Center in El Paso. It was a branch where third and fourth year medical school students got some experience, with hardly any research component. Then State Sen. Eliot Shapleigh and his ally, political strategist Ray Caballero worked to have El Paso share control of the Border Health Institute and Texas Tech.
"Ray as the strategist and Eliot as the negotiator understood early on what needed to be done and it was going to be a process and that process was going to involve building a consensus and there were going to be counter arguments that we had to prevail over time and there was going to be some confrontation before we all came together and said this is the right thing to do," said El Paso businessman Woody Hunt, in an interview on Monday.
When El Paso and Lubbock sparred for control, things got confrontational. Caballero, a former trial lawyer, was known for his aggressive approach. Congressman Reyes, Shapleigh and Caballero called on Hunt to help them get through the impasse. "The three of us (Caballero, Shapleigh, Hunt) formed a negotiating committee that met with Chancellor Mumford and (State) Senator Duncan, who represented the Lubbock area and we had a series of meetings in Austin and we actually had a mediator from the University of Texas law school help in the mediation process."
The struggle led to Texas Tech completely changing its 25-year relationship with its El Paso branch. "Everything was part of a bigger strategy which was to get where we are today with our own medical school," said Hunt.
Currently, there are scientists, doctors and researchers occupying the Texas Tech Health Sciences Center and the rest of the Medical Center. The center boasts four main centers of excellence, each focusing on a specific area of research: cancer, infectious diseases, diabetes and obesity and neurosciences. Doctors who teach at the Paul L. Foster School of Medicine, in many cases, also conduct research at the Health Sciences Center and provide patient care at the adjoining Children's Hospital.
Hunt said he joined the journey for the MCA because of the promise of economic development. "I've got eight grandchildren here so I'm focused on trying to improve our quality of life."
The promise was received with speculation and hostility in the early days. In fact, some, including former City Rep. Luis Sarinana at one point questioned why there was even a need for a physical campus in El Paso and why a medical school would be a good idea. He suggested there should be an online, virtual campus instead of what El Paso has now.
Surrounding residents of the MCA, in the 2002 and 2003 protested then Mayor Ray Caballero's proposed Tax Increment Financing Districts to help fund the MCA because there were concerns the city would use its eminent domain powers to acquire land from property owners for the complex. That never happened.
Hunt said the key to the MCA's success has been the collaboration between the public and private sectors.
"The state has spent $85 million on these two (Texas Tech and Medical School) buildings, they have made a commitment that's approaching $60 million per year in appropriations for the operation of the school. The private sector has contributed or pledged to contribute close to $100 million and so you've got a true public-private partnership."
Hunt and his wife, through their foundation, have recently donated $11 million for a nursing school. The foundation has also donated millions in grants to the MCA. The philanthropist, who's also an investor in MountainStar Sports Group, trying to bring AAA baseball team to El Paso, said he understands economic development projects undergo a public vetting process that can often become contentious. The baseball deal requires the city to build a baseball stadium that could cost up to $50 million. A November ballot initiative asks residents to approve a 2% increase in a Hotel tax so visitors could pay for about 70% of the baseball stadium. MountainStar has bought the team for an unspecified amount.
"I think there's a legitimate discussion and it's particularly legitimate when you have a population that is more income impaired and so you're asking for them to make a public investment to change the outcomes of a community and those outcomes may change slowly and over time, so sometimes it'll be their children or their grandchildren who will be the beneficiary of that change - I think that's a legitimate discussion we ought to have... I wish it was a little more transparent and a little less confrontational instead of putting labels on people or their motives. And my motives, are no different in baseball than they were in the medical school and that's how to drive economic development, how do we drive a higher quality of life and higher paying jobs."
"We're disproportionately poor. And that creates a tension whenever you're trying to bring about change that requires public investment and I think that tension continues and so I think if we don't invest, we'll always be poor but yet to invest, you've got to convince people who have relatively low incomes that that investment is something that is in their best interest."