Big Thinkers have a Dream of Distinction

GREENSBORO — Let’s start in Tampa.

That’s where it really took root.

In August, local architect Ken Mayer and other big thinkers from Greensboro traveled to Florida to see a medical simulation center used to train doctors. It sounded like something out of “Star Trek’’ — or maybe, the kid’s game Operation.

They saw an iPad that was as big as a conference table. It contained a virtual cadaver where they could touch the screen and see a 3-D section of the human body.

They saw mannequins that cost at least $80,000. These mannequins had a heartbeat, a pulse and a voice. Do something wrong, and these mannequins could cry, even moan.

Then there was this other operating room. It’s the one with the flat-screen monitors on the walls that depicted the sights and sounds of a war zone, and on the table was a mannequin dressed as a soldier. He didn’t have a leg. It had been blown off in an explosion.

Mayer and nearly a dozen other local big thinkers — CEOs of business, health and higher education — came back to a hotel conference room, resorted to the old-school organizational tool of a flip chart and talked about what they saw.

The mannequins and big iPad were cool and all. But Mayer and the others in Opportunity Greensboro saw an opportunity to teach students and prepare them for the ever-changing world of health care.

“It opened people’s eyes,’’ says Mayer, a member of Opportunity Greensboro, an economic development group created four years ago.

“We all grasped that the concept we wanted to do was different. But the idea was there, and we wanted to make it our big idea. There’s nothing like this in North Carolina.’’

What they saw in Tampa, at the Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation — CAMLS for short — was the seed they want to plant somewhere in downtown Greensboro.

We’ll find out where Tuesday.

Right after breakfast, we’ll hear about where this medical simulation center could go. The group is considering three spots, three separate street corners, on land no bigger than 6 acres — South Elm and East Lee, West Friendly and Eugene, and West Market and Spring.

The center would become the anchor of a downtown university campus.

Right now, that campus is one building — four floors, 105,000 square feet, with a price tag of $40 million. Once the campus is up and running, Mayer and others in Opportunity Greensboro see more buildings springing up with more specialties and more schools involved.

The initial building would bring together UNCG, N.C. A&T, GTCC and Cone Health, and they would share lab space and equipment, offer health care professionals additional training and provide students the opportunity to earn anything from an associate degree to a doctorate in nursing.
The building would house other things, too. It would give adults the chance to finish their four-year college degrees and help students study abroad, local companies do business abroad, and foreign companies find business right here.

The big idea is the medical simulation center. Catawba Valley Community College has something like it. But it’s much smaller, nowhere near the scale of what could happen in Greensboro.

Tim Clontz knows. He went to Tampa. But moreover, he knows health care. He started at age 19 mopping floors at UNC Hospital. He’s now 61, the executive vice president at Cone Health.

“Just the idea that there is an innovative spirit and support for innovation in our community,’’ Clontz says of the medical simulation center. “That’s huge, not just for the folks living in Greensboro but for those who might come in the future.’’

True. But the bigger idea may be this idea of collaboration.

It could break down the invisible walls that separate higher education institutions in Greensboro, bring them together and harness the intellectual horsepower available in our corner of the South.

Do the numbers. Greensboro is a city with six colleges and one law school. It has 47,000 college students and more than 6,300 employees working in higher education. Tag onto that the 20,000 executives worldwide who come in for training and research every year at the Center for Creative Leadership.

Those numbers ain’t small.

It all makes me think about potential. It makes Mayer mention something about gorillas.

“We don’t have one big gorilla,’’ says Mayer, an N.C. State grad. “We don’t have a Duke, an N.C. State, a UNC. We have a series of smaller gorillas. But having them come together can make them one really big gorilla that can do world-class things.

“Once we get that first building, you’re thinking two, three, four, five, six buildings. It happened in Spokane, and once the community and the institutions here see it can be done, it’ll open eyes even more.’’

Mayer means Spokane, Wash.

On the eastern edge of the city’s downtown, beside a bend in the Spokane River is an eight-building campus, space shared by two universities. It has become an academic center that creates jobs, generates revenue and prepares students for jobs in health care and bioscience.

The economic impact: $350 million a year, according to a recent report by a health care consulting company.

Mayer and the other big thinkers in Opportunity Greensboro like to dream.

But then there’s the reality: They have to get people to write checks to pay for it all.

The universities would lease the space. But construction costs would come from different pockets — foundations, corporations, grants and possibly our own tax dollars.

It’ll be tough raising $40 million in this economy. But there’s something else, too.

Greensboro has always had what I call an Eeyore complex. You know, the lovable donkey from “Winnie The Pooh.” He’s known to say, “End of the road. Nothing to do, and no hope of things getting better.’’

The big thinkers who found a big idea in Tampa believe they can overcome that.

Like April Harris. She went to Tampa, she is the executive director of the nonprofit Action Greensboro, and she has heard those end-of-the-road thoughts.

So Harris keeps in her office, tacked to her cork board, this quote: “Everything is hard until you make it easy. You just have to find the right way to think about.’’

“It’s so true,’’ she says.

We’ll see.

Contact Jeri Rowe at 373-7374 or at jeri.rowe

reposted from the Greensboro News & Record