Over the past several months, local residents driving by the M. Bert Storey Cancer Research Building on the corner of Laney-Walker and R.A. Dent boulevards have witnessed something extraordinary.
What once was described as a pedestrian bridge or “walkway” connecting the Georgia Cancer Center outpatient building to the research facility over Laney-Walker Boulevard has finally taken shape.
And it is no simple walkway.
This massive, three-story connector stretching across Laney-Walker Boulevard between the two medical buildings will soon add about 25,000 square feet and approximately 70 additional offices to the cancer research facility.
Scheduled to open by July, the connector is just part of the total $62.5 million expansion of the 170,000-square-foot facility.
The total expansion will include an additional 72,000 square feet of new space and 6,000 square feet of renovations to research building.
But probably the first change that visitors to the Health Sciences campus will notice is new addition of the connector.
“It’s a 20,000 plus-square-foot building that has been suspended 30 to 35 feet in the air,” said Al Dallas, chief of staff at the Georgia Cancer Center, referring to the three-story connector. “It has been described as a walkway, but it’s actually about 70 offices and about 20,000 to 25,000 square feet. So, it’s a building above the road.”
The original five-story cancer research facility, which houses offices, laboratories and special equipment for researchers, was opened in 2006 at a cost of $54 million.
The cancer center is home to about 35 Augusta University research faculty and about 175 associated personnel.
Dr. Sharad Ghamande, the associate director for clinical research at the Georgia Cancer Center and the executive vice chair of the Medical College of Georgia’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, said the connection between the research building and the cancer center’s outpatient facility is extremely important because it will allow for much more interaction between the research scientists and physicians.
“At times, the basic researchers, they do the science part of it, but they don’t necessarily get included in the clinical application of what they are doing in the lab,” Ghamande said, adding that the physicians also don’t always get direct contact with researchers. “This will allow for regular dialogue between both groups. Making that connection.”
The construction of the connector will be completed sometime during the second quarter of this year, and Laney-Walker Boulevard once again will be open to traffic.
Dallas believes the complete $62.5 million expansion will take the Georgia Cancer Center to the next level.
“Why do people go to MD Anderson Cancer Center or, if it is a pediatric patient, why do they go to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital? It really is the clinical trials. It is the care you can only receive there,” Dallas said, prior to a recent hard hat tour of the expansion. “That’s the importance of linking together those basic scientists to our clinical faculty here because any research starts in a lab before it ever gets introduced into a human. To be able to have that collaborative space will help make that connection.”
Currently, the clinical faculty members are in five or six different locations across the campus, Dallas said.
“So now we are moving all of them into the same space where the basic scientists are going to be,” Dallas said. “Hopefully, it will create that dialogue so that what they are seeing in a test tube can be discussed with what the doctors are seeing from an actual patient they are treating.”
The positive transformation of all aspects of Augusta University, the cancer center and research facility over the past several years has been truly remarkable.
It has been approximately eight years since Dr. Ricardo Azziz, then-president of the Medical College of Georgia, first went before the city to discuss trying to better connect the Health Sciences campus.
At the time, Azziz wanted to permanently close a section of historic Laney-Walker Boulevard between R.A. Dent Boulevard and 15th Street.
Azziz’s proposal caused an enormous uproar in the community because many local residents consider Laney-Walker Boulevard to be the most historic street in Augusta’s African-American community.
The political firestorm that rained down on the medical college seemed to catch Azziz completely off guard.
“I can understand an individual’s dislike for the proposal, particularly because it was the first time they had heard it,” Azziz told the Metro Spirit in 2011. “What I was a little surprised at was the degree of political segregation that still remains in Augusta. While I value, understand and respect the history here, we as a community have to come together — all of us regardless of race — to continue to improve our community.”
Azziz, a native of Uruguay who was named president of MCG back in March 2010 and served in that role until his resignation in 2015, desperately wanted the community to listen to his reasoning behind his proposal to close the road around the campus.
“I hope cool heads will prevail and the temptation to label this as a racial issue is held back,” Azziz said in 2011. “This is not about race. I have the deepest respect for civil rights because I am the product of the freedom afforded by those civil rights leaders.”
In fact, Azziz said MCG planned to honor the namesakes of the street — two of Augusta’s most prominent African-American leaders, Lucy Craft Laney and Rev. Charles T. Walker — within a pedestrian mall if the city agreed to the road closure.
“While there has been a fair amount of initial controversy about this, the reality is that we all have to take a deep breath and step back,” Azziz said. “The university brings in $2 billion per year to the economy of the region and that is, by the way, equivalent to about 13 to 15 Masters tournaments per year. It is our responsibility to make sure that the university continues to grow so that it can offer more jobs and bring in more money to the region and serve more people. This is not just about the university getting bigger; it is about making sure that the university, the city and the region are more competitive.”
Azziz’s attitude did not sit well with many throughout the community.
Ellis Albright, president of the CSRA Business League, insisted Azziz should have spent a lot more time getting to know the significance of the neighborhoods surrounding the medical college before suggesting to close a portion of Laney-Walker Boulevard.
“You come in, you haven’t been here a year yet, you don’t understand the businesses on the street, you don’t understand the neighborhood and you don’t give back to the neighborhood, so how do you expect the neighborhood to want to support you while you are sitting up there in an ivory tower?” Albright said in 2011. “That is the attitude I got from him. Dr. Azziz needs to get his head out of the sand. It seems like Dr. Azziz is trying to bully people into what he wants to do.”
Several community leaders suggested that the medical college consider building a pedestrian bridge to better connect the campus, but Azziz insisted back in 2011 that such a proposal was not feasible.
“We cannot, in today’s environment, build bridges over the street,” Azziz told the Metro Spirit. “These things are not really feasible because you do not create a true campus appearance that is competitive. In fact, if anything you enhance the divide. This is not a very big campus. The reality is we are talking about two blocks.”
Azziz insisted it was Augusta that needed to change its mind instead of the medical college.
“I think it is important to ask: Do you really think if things stay the same and we do not adapt that we will somehow get better and more successful?” Azziz asked. “We won’t be competitive without some discomfort and some pain.”
Much like many of the proposals suggested by Azziz during his tenure at the university, it rubbed the community the wrong way.
When Azziz left his post as professor and chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles in 2010 to move across the country with his family and become the eighth president of MCG, members of the selection committee insisted he was “the best person for the job.”
With more than 20 years of leadership experience in higher education, research and health care, Azziz seemed like the perfect fit to head the merger of then-Augusta State University and Georgia Health Sciences University.
As president of the college, which of course was later given the controversial name of Georgia Regents University, Azziz managed a greater than $1.3 billion integrated and aligned enterprise with more than 1,000 full-time faculty, 8,500 students and 10,000 employees.
Azziz called the position an “extraordinarily hard job,” especially serving as president of GRU during its transitional period.
In fact, citizens throughout the CSRA were brutal about Azziz’s leadership style after he backed the GRU name instead of the more popular “University of Augusta.”
Not long after, the community began the “Save the A” campaign to change the name and by January 2015, Azziz announced his resignation from GRU.
“It hasn’t been easy,” Azziz said following his announcement. “But at the end of the day, great things don’t happen without effort.”
Even though Azziz was leaving Augusta, he was still taking a hefty payout with him.
Azziz received a $1.1 million package paid by both the University System of Georgia and Georgia Regents Health System.
He was given a $670,000 “education leave” salary and a one-time payment of $470,000 following his departure from the university.
The payout made Azziz one of the highest-paid staffers in the University System of Georgia in fiscal 2015 with a salary of $1.14 million.
But the surprises didn’t stop there.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last year that Azziz once again was one of the highest-paid University System of Georgia’s employees in fiscal 2016, making a whopping $1.735 million.
This, despite that the fact that Azziz’s last day at GRU was in June 2015 and he began working for the State University of New York as chief officer of academic health and hospital affairs in 2016.
“The majority of Dr. Azziz’s compensation in fiscal year 2016 was from a deferred compensation account that the University System had been contributing to since Dr. Azziz first began working for our system,” Charles Sutlive, a spokesman for University System, told the AJC. “After stepping down as president, Dr. Azziz continued to see patients and conduct research.”
Fortunately for Augusta, by the summer of 2015, it was announced that Brooks Keel, then-president of Georgia Southern University, had been selected as the new leader of GRU.
And, in September 2015, Keel celebrated with the city as the Board of Regents agreed to change the name to Augusta University.
“Being born and raised in Augusta, and having graduated from both of the two institutions that have now formed this one university, it has become apparent to me that Georgia Regents University or Augusta University cannot become the university that it can and should become without the complete and total support of the partnership we have with the city of Augusta and the community,” Keel said in 2015. “And I am fully convinced and firmly believe that the action that you are taking today will help us establish that strong partnership that is going to make this great university even greater, and it is going to make the city of Augusta even greater, as well.”
The name change was effective immediately.
It was a complete reversal from the Board of Regents’ 2012 decision.
Suddenly, GRU was no more, and Augusta University was born.
Since then, Augusta University has continued to promote that positive energy and erase the division that was created in the past.
As many local citizens drive past Augusta University’s Georgia Cancer Center and see the construction of the elevated connector stretching over Laney-Walker Boulevard, they can’t help but smile.
It’s a new day in Augusta.
“It has been one of those projects that has been talked about for quite some time from a construction standpoint,” said Dallas. “There was six or nine months where the project had started but most of the work was testing the soil, so you didn’t see much physical construction. But now, ever since they started construction, you are seeing daily advancements with the project. Now you can see the formation of offices and rooms, so it will be exciting to soon occupy the space. Very, very exciting.”
But even more thrilling is the fact that, that expansion will allow for better care of its patients battling all forms of cancer, he said.
“To truly be a cancer center, where you’ve got everything from basic science through all of the treatment at one location certainly makes it easier on the patients because they are dealing with quite a bit,” Dallas said. “The more patient-centric we can be, the better. If they can come to a single spot for all of their treatment, it is much better for them.”
Ghamande said this entire region has really started looking at the cancer center differently these days.
“Historically, in this town, there has been competition between different hospitals and stuff like that,” Ghamande said. “The reality is, as more and more time goes by, the entire community looks at this cancer center as our cancer center, not MCG’s Cancer Center. It’s our cancer center.”
As he geared up for the hard hat tour of the construction site around the cancer center, Dallas said Augustans should feel extremely proud that the university is building something so meaningful for the entire region.
“You don’t move a community forward unless you address its health care and education. That is the foundation of any healthy, vibrant community,” Dallas said, as he looked around the cancer center. “This will last a lifetime and beyond.”