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Oklahoma Med-Research Foundation on Track to Consolidate Facilities Next Year

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By Alex Philippidis

The Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation said it is on track to complete construction next year of a $125 million, 186,000-square-foot research center designed to fulfill its longstanding goal of bringing under one roof research efforts now scattered among several buildings.

Ground for the eight-story research tower was broken in May, and construction is set to be completed Dec 31, 2010.

"We're pretty much right on schedule to complete it then or possibly before," Sheryl Rood, manager of the research tower project for OMRF, told BioRegion News in a recent interview.

"Without a doubt, the reason for the tower is to accommodate the need for growth,” Rood added. “We've run out of space and are leasing space off campus," about a mile south at the Presbyterian Health Foundation Research Park.

OMRF will back fill the space being vacated by researchers moving into the new research center, Rood said.

Designed by the architectural firm Perkins+Will, the new facility, to be located directly north of OMRF’s main building at 825 NE 13th St. in Oklahoma City, will house laboratory, administrative, and clinical research space.

As of March, OMRF spokesman Greg Elwell said, the foundation has raised $51 million of the project cost; a more recent figure was unavailable. The project's first $15 million came from the Oklahoma Opportunity Fund, intended to benefit "projects which provide a substantial economic benefit to the state" by creating or retaining jobs, generating investment in property, or new or refurbished equipment, and generating new taxes for the Sooner State.

The donation marked one of only a handful of times money has been spent from the controversial fund by Gov. Brad Henry. The other major project was $10 million for an American Airlines aircraft hangar in Tulsa that broke ground last year.

The controversial fund's future is uncertain. It was created in 2006 but was not replenished in 2007 or 2008 after the state Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a key element of the fund: Who may decide what money gets spent.

The original arrangement would have had decisions being made jointly by Henry, House Speaker Chris Benge (R-Sand Springs), and Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn Coffee (R-Oklahoma City). Oklahoma's Supreme Court sided with plaintiff Jerry Fent, a retired Oklahoma City attorney, who argued that the arrangement violated Oklahoma's separation-of-powers doctrine and a statute prohibiting officials from holding a dual office.

While Henry, a Democrat, supports the fund, Republicans who control both houses of the state legislature remain opposed. On March 11, the state Senate passed a bill introduced by state Sen. Randy Brogdon (R-Owasso) — who hopes to succeed the term-limited Henry as governor in next year's election — that would repeal the fund, and transfer unspent funds to the general fund. The measure has advanced to the state House of Representatives, where nothing has happened since it was referred to its Appropriations and Budget committee on March 18.

The State Chamber of Oklahoma and several other business groups have sought to retain the fund, which was modeled after the Texas Enterprise Fund, saying its proposed repeal would hurt efforts to create and retain jobs.

But Brogdon, House co-author Daniel Sullivan (R-Tulsa), and bill supporters counter that the fund promotes corporate welfare and thus demonstrates irresponsible government spending.

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"It's not right for the state government to spend money to handpick which companies are going to prosper," Brogdon told Urban Tulsa Weekly in 2007. "If I was governor and I was going to make that decision, I would set a level playing field and set up a free market."

OMRF says the new research center would be among the first facilities of its kind to generate part of its energy through wind power. The tower will include on its roof 24 vertical turbines, to be made by San Diego-based Helix Wind, and arranged in the shape of DNA molecules. One of the turbines has already arrived on campus, at OMRF's main lobby, where it functions "more as a piece of art" pending installation of the system, Rood said.

"It's going to be around $300,000" — a fraction of the project cost — Rood said of the wind system. OMRF has worked out a net metering system with utility Oklahoma Gas & Electric, which is headquartered in Oklahoma City.

OMRF considered both wind energy as well a solar photovoltaic system, and has designed the building to allow future installation of the latter. "We have sun and wind. The reason that we opted for the wind turbines versus the photovoltaic system is right now, it's our understanding that while there is quite a bit of research in the photovoltaic [area], and the technology is improving very rapidly, I'm not sure that this is the correct time to add the photovoltaic. I think if we wait a few more years, we will be able to achieve more energy for less money."

The visual look of the turbines also helped sway OMRF toward installing the wind energy system immediately.

"It's extremely symbolic, as well as just being good sense," Elwell said. "The wind is a pretty big part of the landscape around here, and when people see that we're harnessing that power, it's another statement about how we're very Oklahoman in nature.

Oscar Hammerstein immortalized Oklahoma's windy climate in the first line of his lyrics to the title tune of the namesake Broadway musical he created with Richard Rodgers (" … where the wind comes sweeping down the plain."). More recently, businesses and institutions have sought to capitalize on the Sooner wind — from Eco Express Car Wash, which last month installed a Windspire wind energy system that the Oklahoma City business says will reduce its environmental impact, to Oklahoma University, which joined with OG&E in April to break ground on a 101 megawatt wind farm, dubbed "OU Spirit," a two-hour drive west of OKC in Woodward, Okla.

"We may have scientists who come to us from all around the world, but a lot of this is for Oklahoma, so it's kind of nice to have the wind turbine. It's just another nod to our home state, as well as being environmentally conscious," Elwell added.

Added Rood: "We have high hopes for these [turbines]."

The wind system is among energy sustainability initiatives expected to enable OMRF's new research tower to attain the second-highest "gold" rating under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards developed by the US Green Building Council.

Another sustainability initiative: The building's HVAC system combines recirculated air with the amount of fresh air needed for required air changes. "We figured that we're going to have about a 20 percent savings in our energy costs by implementing the wind turbines and the Venturi Wedge" system, in which a constant volume of preconditioned air "induces" room-temperature air over heating and cooling coils that bring the temperature of the combined air to room temperature.

OMRF says the new tower will enable it to grow its workforce from its current 50 principal investigators and about 500 employees, to 80 PIs and about 800 staffers. While the foundation has hired some new researchers in recent weeks, OMRF's current space isn't enough to accommodate the additional PIs.

"It would be counterproductive to be bringing in too many new investigators without having the lab space available. The ones we have added, we have found space for, and some of them have replaced people who were leaving. It's an ongoing project," Elwell said.

"The hope would be that we can bring everybody home, so to speak, when this project is completed, and get everyone on one shared campus," Elwell said.

Among researchers to be relocating to the new research center is Judith James, the head of the foundation's new clinical immunology program. The new facility will include a clinic, allowing James to monitor the progress of patients receiving treatments being developed at OMRF for lupus and other autoimmune diseases, Elwell said.

OMRF has long focused on researching lupus and other autoimmune diseases — one of several research specialties that will move into more space at the tower. OMRF plans to relocate some PIs focused on cardiovascular biology, as well as cancer and neurodegenerative disease.

OMRF will not fill the entire tower when it opens.

"Some of the tower is actually going to be built out as shell space. As the fundraising continues, it will be completed, and then new programs [will be] put in there," Rood said.

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