The University of Nebraska Medical Center received approval Thursday to start making plans for a new $2.19 billion academic medical center in Omaha, which would be the largest project in university history.
The Nebraska Board of Regents voted unanimously to let UNMC begin the process of engaging a team to develop plans for the new facility near the existing hospital complex.
Historically, the project has been known as Phase 1 of Project NExT, which UNMC officials have described as a multibillion-dollar hospital that would double as a federal all-hazards response facility. Beyond the bricks and mortar, Project NExT also includes a host of programs focused on providing education and training as well as support for research and surge capacity in the case of a long list of potential hazards.
University officials, however, now are calling the first phase of the initiative Project Health: Building the Healthiest Nebraska.
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It’s focused on the health of Nebraskans, said Dr. Jeffrey Gold, UNMC’s chancellor, rather than partnerships with federal agencies or local relationships with organizations such as the Department of Defense, Health and Human Services and Veterans Administration.
A new academic medical center will provide more modern spaces where UNMC faculty and staff can train the next generation of health care providers, many of which are in shortage, particularly in rural areas of the state.
They will also care for Nebraskans, conduct research and offer clinical trials.
The facility won’t replace regional or rural health care facilities, Gold said, but it will serve as a destination when Nebraskans need it.
“It is critically important to understand, if we’re going to continue to provide professionals to serve the rural communities, we have to have a world-class training site in order to recruit faculty and, frankly, to bring students from all over the country here who want to learn here and will want to set down their roots and care for Nebraskans,” Gold said. “So this is about who’s going to care for our children and grandchildren.”
Some of the existing health center buildings are between 50 and 75 years old, he said. Two estimates from nationally recognized architecture and design firms indicate they need nearly $1 billion in deferred maintenance.
Putting the better part of a billion dollars into buildings that old doesn’t make sense, Gold said, particularly because such work wouldn’t allow for significant changes to ceiling heights, plumbing or electrical systems.
In addition, it costs up to three times as much to maintain the older buildings than it does to operate, for instance, the Fred and Pamela Buffett Cancer Center, which opened in 2017.
“This will actually reduce our operating cost, create more efficient and effective care and at the same time provide the ability for us to markedly expand our education programs,” Gold said.
Omaha Regent Elizabeth O’Connor said she doesn’t see the project as just an investment in infrastructure. “More importantly, it’s an investment in the people of Nebraska and the future of our state,” she said.
The regents voted 8-0 to allow the university to engage design and construction planning teams, which will require a public bid and board approval. University officials hope to have the teams in place by the end of the year.
The teams then would create a detailed plan for the project, known as a program statement. That also would require regents’ approval. Gold said he hopes to see construction work begin by winter or spring 2025.
In reality, he said, the university has done a lot of planning since it was initially approached in 2014 by federal partners interested in planning to respond to high-consequence pathogens.
The university previously has identified a 7½-acre site on the northern edge of campus, the former site of the Munroe-Meyer Institute, as the site of a new facility.
Gold said he is still “guardedly optimistic” that Phases 2 and 3 of the larger project eventually will move ahead. However, he noted there are a number of “constraints” at the federal level.
The regents previously approved a pilot project that allowed the university to apply for a $300 million state investment in the project, which was contingent on the university obtaining federal and philanthropic support.
Gold said the university has secured about $450 million in private support, between letters of intent and signed commitments. “But we’re not done,” he said.
According to university officials, adding more academic, research and patient care capacity in new facilities would generate between $600 million and $1.1 billion in incremental revenue annually by year seven of the project, based on Phase 1 investments and future ones.
The project would allow UNMC to expand the number of health care providers it educates, including adding about 100 new physician residency training positions by 2030.
In other action, regents also approved UNMC’s plan for the research component of a new combination administration and research facility that will serve as the cornerstone for the university’s new Saddle Creek Campus.
The $87 million Campus Operations and Research Excellence or CORE Building, situated on the southwest corner of Saddle Creek Road and Farnam Street, will add to UNMC’s research space, which is nearing capacity.
The facility will include two administrative floors, one for computer-based research and three for laboratory research in drug discovery, oncology and other areas. Construction will begin this fall with completion expected in early 2026.
The building is being designed to accommodate a future pedestrian bridge over Saddle Creek Road that will link the Saddle Creek Campus to the main campus. The City of Omaha will build, own and operate an adjacent parking structure that will serve the building.
The regents also approved UNMC’s purchase of two Omaha properties for possible future campus development at 414 S. 40th St. and 3910 Dewey Ave.