The Borderland corridor is one of the nation’s busiest border crossings. The binational, tri-state region contributes billions in international trade and gross state product for Texas. However, the area faces challenges in recruiting healthcare professionals to the Paso del Norte region.
“As a medically underserved community that also has many rural areas, it’s very hard to recruit medical professionals to our community,” said Emma W. Schwartz, the President of the Medical Center of the Americas Foundation and member of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.
Before the 1970s, there were few opportunities for future healthcare professionals to study in El Paso. That changed in 1973 when Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center established a regional academic health campus in El Paso—creating the possibility for the community to train and grow their population in the life and health sciences. Over time, Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso (TTUHSC El Paso) transformed from a regional campus into the only freestanding health sciences center on the U.S.-Mexico border.
“TTUHSC El Paso was the result of community leaders coming together to address the shortage of healthcare providers and higher-paying jobs for our region,” said Andrea S. Tawney, Ph.D. Associate Vice Chancellor for Institutional Advancement TTUHSC El Paso. “We like to say our campus was founded on philanthropy for and by our community.”
As student enrollment numbers continue to rise, TTUHSC El Paso and Sundt broke ground on the new $84 million Medical Sciences Building II (MSB II) in May 2017. The five-story, 219,900-square-foot building will increase TTUHSC El Paso’s research space, with more than 87,000 square feet dedicated to laboratories, offices, and research administration. The first floor will house the campus’ largest teaching auditorium – 9,200 square feet for up to 500 people, and available for lectures and community events.
“[The building] is going to triple our research capacity,” said Tawney. “[We] will have the ability to recruit researchers because you can’t recruit them without a start-up package that includes state-of-the-art laboratory space, equipment and more capacity for them to conduct and grow their research. The addition of MSB II is a huge asset for our campus and region.”
One of the building’s unique features is the bridge-like span across the top of the circular auditorium using concrete girders. “There’s two stories above the auditorium and lab space above the auditorium,” said Larry Kurtz, Project Manager for Sundt Construction. “Typically, a designer would avoid this scenario due to the vibration sensitivity of lab equipment.”
Kurtz continued, “it was one of the coolest things we were able to perform on this project. It’s rare for a vertical builder to essentially build a ‘bridge’ across the auditorium, inside of a building, and built out of post-tensioned concrete, which was self-performed by Sundt’s concrete division.”
The third floor of the MSB II will house the recently accredited Woody L. Hunt School of Dental Medicine, which will help fill a community gap. In 2017, El Paso County had 5,482 residents to one dentist, compared nationally to a 2,075 to one ratio.
“Annually, dentists who graduate [in Texas] typically stay within a 100-mile radius of where they go to dental school,” added Tawney. “The addition of the Hunt Dental School will further achieve our TTUHSC El Paso mission of ‘growing our own’ to address the disparity of dentists for our region.”
The incoming class in July 2021 will be able to use the Dental Learning Center; Sundt is currently finalizing the space to equip 80 simulation stations with high-tech movable manikins to help the students practice. “We’ve been working very closely with Dr. [Richard] Black on planning and building the space,” said Kurtz. “Having a dental learning center will be a great stepping stone to help the El Paso community.”
The Sundt team developed a highly interactive virtual rendering 3D image of what the building would look like and coordinated with TTUHSC El Paso officials to bring in community leaders, donors, the dental community, and the accreditation body to visualize and witness the actual progress on the facility. “We provided multiple site visits from prospective students and community members to the accreditation board to visualize what the space was going to become and the progress we were making,” said Kurtz. “We stopped work in early March and safely moved media, donors and community leaders into the building for an official public announcement, tours and a reception.”
The building has been a labor of love for so many that have worked on the project. Daily, since the project began, the project team has had 40 to 275 skilled craft workers working on MSB II. Kurtz credits his team for their coordination, out-of-the-box problem solving and love of the region for the success of this project. “Our team lives and works in El Paso,” he said. “They want to give back to the community. The team always jumped on board with whatever volunteer opportunity that was available.”
The team invested heavily in volunteering and providing activities for the patients at the El Paso Children’s Hospital. Kurtz originally arrived in El Paso to help build the hospital, which has a special place in his heart. Over the last two years, around Christmas time, Kurtz led his team in setting out an “Elf on the Shelf” across the project site each day during December. In 2019, they did a similar thing with Pokémon characters they built and hand-painted. In April, to thank the healthcare workers and essential workers on the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic, the team personally designed signs and hung them on the fence facing the hospital complex.
“[Sundt] doesn’t just build it, leave and move on to the next project or have people who are kind of transient that don’t see the value of getting involved in the community,” Tawney added. “I say this very genuinely, I’ve worked with so many builders on different construction projects in higher education. It is such a different atmosphere and approach Sundt has. They are very much part of the community and care about making a difference in the community.”
As the project wraps up this summer and the TTUHSC El Paso leadership, faculty and staff move into this new space, the impact the building will have on the El Paso community is extensive.