With McAllen City Commissioner Jim Darling — who also serves as general counsel for Doctors Hospital at Renaissance — waiting in the audience at City Hall, the Edinburg City Council on Wednesday, July 22, instructed City Manager J.J. RodrĂ-guez to begin work on a possible deal to help the local hospital system cover some of the costs for DHR's planned $14 million Edinburg Medical Conference Center.

The Edinburg Medical Conference Center would be owned by Doctors Hospital at Renaissance.

The conference center is being promoted by DHR leaders as an economic development resource for Edinburg on several fronts, not just with projections by hospital leaders that it would create 293 jobs in South Texas, but also as a medical education and performing arts center.

The decision to begin negotiations with hospital officials came after the city council — as allowed by state law — went behind closed doors to figure out what kind of help they are willing to offer DHR leaders, who are ready to build the proposed 54,000-square-foot Edinburg Medical Conference Center.

RodrĂ-guez, who confirmed he will be principal negotiator with Darling, said he was not yet at liberty to reveal too many details regarding what the city may or may not offer DHR leaders.

"Doctors Hospital has run its (financial) numbers, we just need to determine how those numbers are made up, look too see it is infrastructure-related, or just for construction," RodrĂ-guez explained. "It will be very similar to what occurs with the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation, where they negotiate based on the nature of the request."

The EEDC is the jobs-creation arm of the city council, and has at its disposal a treasury of several million dollars — public money generated from the collection of a one-half economic development sales tax — which could be tapped for the Edinburg Medical Conference Center.

The five-member board of directors for the EEDC is appointed by the city council, with the exception of the mayor, who is guaranteed a seat on the governing board under the bylaws that created the EEDC.

"At some point, it will come back to the city council for ratification, based on my negotiations," RodrĂ-guez said.

Another possible source of city funding could come from almost $5 million still sitting in a city account that is restricted for use on medical-related projects, since so far, the city leadership has ruled out the use of local sales taxes — in the form of tax breaks — to help DHR in this project.

That money, officially designated as the Restricted Medical Authority Appropriations Fund, represents principal that remains plus interest that has been generated from the sale in the 1990s of the former city-owned Edinburg General Hospital to Universal Health Services, Inc.

UHS was allowed to purchase the former city-owned hospital in exchange for building the $25 million Edinburg Regional Medical Center — which is part of a system of other hospitals in Edinburg and McAllen which compete against Doctors Hospital at Renaissance.

Edinburg has previously tapped into the Restricted Medical Authority Appropriations Fund.

In November 2002, Mayor Joe Ochoa, authorized by a different city council, presented a $1 million check drawn from that account to the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio. In exchange for that local financial contribution, the UT System authorized the creation of the $20 million Regional Academic Health Center, an advanced biomedical research center, located immediately next to UT-Pan American.

Darling, who was not allowed into the closed door session, expressed confidence that an agreement between the city and DHR will materialize — and quickly.

"I think (the negotations) will be pretty simple. The city attorney (Ricardo González) is away right now, but we have already spoken about it," said Darling. "When he gets back, I think that won't be a very tough process at all."

Once an agreement is finalized, "knowing how we do things at Doctors Hospital, the construction period will take place real fast," Darling predicted.

The planned conference center would be located on the east campus of the DHR complex, which is bordered by South McColl Road and Owassa Road in southwest Edinburg.

The Edinburg Medical Conference Center is set to join The Women's Hospital at Renaissance, the Renaissance Behavioral Center, and the Cancer Center at Renaissance, along with a major medical office center, on the east campus.

"It is going to be beneficial in multiple ways," explained Laura Nassri Warren, AIA, of The Warren Group Architects, Inc. of McAllen, who is designing the conference center.

Warren was with Darling in the audience when the city council went behind closed doors and after they returned into open session, when city leaders announced their decision to try to strike a development deal with Doctors Hospital.

"We are going to be providing a venue to continue education for the medical community, we are providing a state-of-the-art facility that will allow the medical community to continue to grow with something that currently doesn't exist in the Valley, but is very much needed," Warren said after the city council meeting.

The Edinburg Medical Conference Center will feature an auditorium with a performance arts capability, conference rooms, a board room, a catering kitchen facility, according to Warren.

Depending on the configuration of the rooms, up to 800 people could be accommodated in the ballroom, which would be the largest component in the two-story facility.

Conference rooms will be able to hold more than 250 persons.

All rooms will feature world-class visual and audio technology systems.

According to the plan unveiled by DHR earlier this spring, the planned Edinburg Medical Conference Center would also bring these additional advantages to the area:

• Provide a venue to the medical community to inform and educate South Texans of medical resources available in the region;

• Support health awareness programs with a state-of-the-art medical campus;

• Enhance medical education program growth by partnering with local universities and colleges; and

• Provide a venue to promote the creation of educational opportunities in medical, nursing, and research programs.

Warren said much of the crucial advance work already has been done by DHR.

"The preliminary design or the strategic planning has taken place. Then all of the detailing is what follows," she said. "That usually takes about, fast-track, two to three months what usually takes about four to six months to plan. We are working at a very fast pace. Then we are looking at an eight to ten months construction time."

If all goes well, she said, it could take between 13 and 14 months from the date an agreement is reached with the city government until the Edinburg Medical Conference Center is open for business.

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