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David M. Stern, MD, is the new vice chancellor for Health Affairs for Statewide Initiatives at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. In this role, he will direct and grow the university’s many initiatives to address essential health problems across Tennessee.

NASHVILLE — State officials have said the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga can start formal planning of what could become a $100 million health science building the university calls "critical" for continued program growth.

State Building Commission members last week agreed the university could go forward with hiring a consultant as officials shape their vision for a 160,000- to 200,000-square-foot building at the intersection of East Third and Palmetto streets.

Under discussion for about two years, the new building is a partnership between UTC, the UT Health Science Center and Erlanger hospital, according to UTC officials.

One area up for discussion is how much square footage each of those entities will need and where in the building they will be located.

Building commission documents currently peg the space as 160,000 square feet. University officials estimate they may need as much as 200,000 square feet.

Last week's unanimous vote marks the beginning of what likely will be a lengthy process, said UT system President Joe DiPietro.

"It's to get a design so that we can then figure out in a better fashion what that building will cost," DiPietro said following the meeting. "I believe that the chancellor there is very interested in us putting it on the capital outlay list eventually and a high priority."

Richard Brown, UTC's executive vice chancellor of finance and administration, said university officials see the new building as "critical for the continued growth of Health Sciences at UTC and [it] also enables ongoing partnerships in the medical fields and as a platform for research."

Brown said UTC is focused on the area around East Third Street because it's "quickly becoming the medical corridor in Chattanooga" with access to Erlanger, Parkridge Medical Center and Memorial Hospital, as well as several physician and surgical practices.

UTC wants to consolidate programs now scattered in buildings across campus, including the departments of nursing, health and human performance, biology, geology and environmental science, as well as allied health services such as physical therapy.

Nursing and health and human performance now reside in the Metro Building. Biology, environmental science and geology are housed in Holt Hall. Other health services are spread out over the downtown campus.

The State Building Commission gave UTC the green light to initiate the project, budget, scope, funding and sources of funding and go forward with selecting a programming consultant.

DiPietro said it lets UTC officials determine from users more precisely what they need.

"To sit down with the people who are going to be in the building and say, 'If you could dream a big dream about your building, what kinds of things would you like to have as components to be most effective and efficient with your programming?'" he said.

Brown estimated funding approval through the UT System and the Tennessee Higher Education Commission could take about three years. The hope is to have the Health Science Center ready to open about two years after that.

If the past is any guide, the timeline would likely depend on continued revenue growth to pay for capital projects across state government.

Another potential factor is funding priorities of Tennessee's next governor, who takes office in January 2019, and the General Assembly.

State Building Commission members also gave approval to UTC to spend $100,000 toward planning for major Maclellan Gym renovations.

UTC officials envision demolishing the natatorium interior, leaving the shell and replacing it with a two-story structure for various student services functions.

The project calls for upgrading public restrooms and locker rooms along with the building and making it accessible under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Other work would include replacing the hot water, electrical, and heating and air conditioning systems, plus improvements to building finishes, furnishings, signage and windows and new exterior doors.

Nearby sidewalks would be repaired while bleachers, seating and built-in gym equipment would be replaced.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on twitter @AndySher1.

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