UAB Asks JeffCo Commission to Support New Medical Research Building

UAB President Ray Watts and Dr. Selwyn Vickers, the senior vice president for medicine and dean of the School of Medicine, spoke during a Jefferson County Commission meeting about plans for a new genomic medicine and data sciences building. (Source: Solomon Crenshaw Jr.)

Two high-ranking leaders from UAB today asked Jefferson County to invest with the Southside institution in making the Altec/Styslinger Genomic Medicine and Data Sciences Building a reality.

UAB President Ray Watts and Dr. Selwyn Vickers, the senior vice president for medicine and dean of the School of Medicine, asked commissioners during their committee meeting to consider putting $1 million per year for five years into the $70 million project.

The 140,000-square-foot building will house more than 50 research operations, which the pair said will produce annual revenue of $35 million to $55 million, or a total of $175 million to $300 million over five years.

But, they said, it’s not just about the money. Watts said the work there will lay the foundation for health care for the future of Birmingham, Jefferson County and beyond.

“What we learn will have relevance around the world,” the UAB president said. “We’re not asking for a gift. It’s an investment with us.

“We expect 50-plus researchers in this building but we’re renovating space in adjacent buildings,” Watts said. “With that together, we will have the capacity for another 75 to 100 funded investigators, most of whom will have a $1 million portfolio of research funding.”

Watts said UAB is seeking a $50 million investment from the state of Alabama. “We told the governor this is the most important economic development project you’re going to have,” the UAB president said.

Vickers said the diversity of metro Birmingham is a plus in genomic research. He noted that most of the trials are costly and don’t have people of color included.

“When they actually want to figure out how to get people of color included, they come ask us,” Vickers said. “We actually have a level of relationship in our communities where people enroll and they have a measure of trust in our institution.”

Commissioner Lashunda Scales cited the county’s $30 million funding toward the construction of Protective Stadium and the Indigent Care Fund dollars that will go to the UAB Healthcare Authority to care for the county’s poor at Cooper Green Mercy Health System.

“We need to know where we are and what we’re indebted to in terms of a new project,” she said.

She also said that the county needs to support other institutions in the metro area, as well.

“It’s never to devalue what UAB has. It’s about figuring out what you do for Birmingham-Southern. What do you do for Lawson State? What do you do for Jeff State? What do you do for Samford University? What do you do for these other schools so you don’t make other institutions feel they don’t have a place in the county.

“If we’re going to support one,” Scales said, “we need to find a way to support all.”

Funding Procedure Changes

In another matter, commissioners changed their procedure when it comes to making committee assignments for funding items that involve the entire commission.

Commission President Jimmie Stephens’ administrative and infrastructure committee initially had resolutions providing $100,000 each to Alabama A&M and Alabama State universities to promote the continuation of the Magic City Classic football game.

Jefferson County Manager Tony Petelos. (Source: Solomon Crenshaw Jr.)

When questioned why the matter was placed in the committee of Stephens, who voted against the action, he and county manager Tony Petelos said that it had been a long-standing practice to assign items that had been passed as part of the budget but still had to go before the full commission for funding to the administrative committee.

“Nobody could really say why,” finance committee Chairman Joe Knight said. “’We’ve done it that way in the past.’”

County Attorney Theo Lawson said that, in the end, it doesn’t matter. “It gets voted on by the commission as a whole regardless of where it sits,” he said.

Commissioners also tweaked their rules regarding discretionary spending. Funding for each commissioner was dropped this fiscal year from $250,000 to $225,000.

They agreed that $125,000 of the funds allotted to each be used for 501c3 nonprofits and $100,000 for infrastructure. Their action included the suggestion that infrastructure projects be at least $15,000.