County panel hears input on osteopathic college site

JEFFERSON — The Jefferson County Finance Committee received input on the proposed location and construction of a new osteopathic college during a town hall-style meeting Tuesday night.

There were nine area residents in attendance, and counting the members of the Finance Committee, 17 of the 30 Jefferson County Supervisors attended, as well. About 14 total questions were asked, and all but three of those came from supervisors. The majority of questions focused on impacts of lost agricultural land and related issues, such as water conservation, or technical issues related to funding the osteopathic college.

Much of the information discussed was similar to a presentation first delivered by County Administrator Ben Wehmeier to the full board at its Nov. 13 meeting.

As previously reported, Wehmeier presented a revised development concept for a new osteopathic medical college and a related medical business park to be built on a portion of county-owned land on the southwest side of the City of Jefferson between State Highway 26 and Collins Road. The area commonly is referred to as “the county farm,” since the county has leased the land for agricultural purposes for many years.

The presentation Nov. 13 focused on the history and evolution of the project, how economic influences have made the project more likely than ever before and a draft of a six-page “letter of intent” between the county and the College of Osteopathic Medicine, Inc.

The concept of a third Wisconsin medical school campus, focusing on osteopathic medicine, originally was brought forward to the board in January 2013.

Osteopathic medicine is described as a “whole-person” approach to medicine. Instead of just treating specific symptoms, osteopathic physicians concentrate on treating a person as a whole.

Under previous leadership, the osteopathic college originally was to be located at the facility once labeled as Sanctuary Ridge, the former St. Coletta of Wisconsin campus. However, multiple personnel changes and financial difficulties led to creation of a new corporation and vision for the college that was undertaken by new project directors Mark Lefebvre and Jennifer DeKrey.

Lefebvre is the former vice president for health and life sciences at the University of Wisconsin Foundation and DeKrey, of Jefferson, is the former chief financial officer of the University of Wisconsin Foundation.

Projections suggest an institution like the college has the potential to create a $121 million increase in economic activity during the construction phase and boost the wealth of Jefferson County by $46.5 million, per a study done by the Jefferson County Economic Development Consortium a few years ago.

Wehmeier noted Nov. 13 that the county farm area is well-situated for development due to the access from Highway 26 and that long-term planning calls for more urban growth in the county to be done in properties already adjacent to city boundaries. Additionally, several county-owned facilities, like the Jefferson County Highway Department garage and Workforce Development Center, already are situated there. However, the most important aspect is that the locations falls within an Economic Opportunity Zone.

Opportunity Zones offer investors incentives for putting capital investments into economically distressed communities. After ten years, investors can receive tax-free capital gains on that investment.

While the college itself might be nonprofit, it likely would make a payment in lieu of taxes to the county, which would allow the creation of a tax incremental finance district, or TID, to build the needed infrastructure. There also is the possibility of utilizing new market tax credits, which are designed to incentivize investment in communities.

Additionally, during its Nov. 13 meeting, the county board was presented a draft “letter of intent” designed “to establish terms and conditions of operational partnerships parameters that will be furthered developed in future negotiated agreements.”

The letter details “benchmarks” the college must meet, such as establishing an accreditation advisory committee by June 2019; develop an “enhanced” design plan for the site by June; form a partnership as required by the regulations of the Commission on Osteopathic Accreditation; have 90 percent of its funding in place by Dec. 31, 2020; obtain pre-accreditation status by Dec. 31, 2021; and have the first class enrolled by Fall of 2022. Likewise, the county will not offer to sell the land to any other interested party during that time, but will transfer the land to the college once, and if, it meets the various benchmarks by their deadlines.

On Tuesday, in addition to Wehmeier, both Lefebvre and Jennifer DeKrey made comments and answered questions during the town hall presentation.

“The stars are really aligning now, and at this point, we really feel that this is the moment that this is going to get done,” DeKrey said.

Lefebvre said that there was a need for a new medical college that would “focus on primary-care education,” adding, “There have been many attempts to establish one across the state, and none have succeeded for a wide range of reasons.

“Why Jefferson?” he continued. “It was clear that Jefferson was at the equipoise of Madison and Milwaukee, so it had the ability to reach out and learn from those two environments. It is also an authentic, small, Midwestern community with grassroots, and osteopathic medicine is all about that. It’s about communities, taking care of your own, and basic medicine.

“At the same time, there have been so many studies coming out, including from the Wisconsin Hospital Association, that have showed the shortage of primary care physicians in Wisconsin,” Lefebvre continued. “The early predictions have become more dire recently that there just are not enough, because the healthcare enterprise in Wisconsin is growing so significantly.”

He added that it is not just physicians, but a shortage of nurse practitioners, pharmacists and “care teams” that are often led by doctors.

“Jefferson is the right place. It is in the intellectual corridor; it has the right spirit and it has the right ethic,” he said.

Lefebvre said the he and DeKrey recently visited Iowa’s Des Moines University’s osteopathic college, one of the oldest in the nation, and the provost there said that they were “in an enviable place” due to the location of recruitment areas upon which Jefferson could draw.

One resident, from Lake Mills, asked Lefebvre and DeKrey about the reception the osteopathic college is getting from the other two medical colleges in the state, the University of Wisconsin Madison School of Medicine and Public Health and the Medical College of Wisconsin.

“They have not been enthusiastic,” Lefebvre replied. “We would love to have them as partners, but neither one was interested, despite the fact they are not meeting the need. I would characterize the Medical College of Wisconsin stance as being strongly pitted against us, and I would say that the University of Wisconsin Madison School of Medicine and Public Health is less so; they would prefer that we did not do this. So, no love.”

DeKrey said the medical park concept was more of a “college of allied health” model, that eventually would have areas that would focus on nursing and pharmacology.

“The way health care is moving, there are groups that will treat you, not just your doctor,” she said. “You will have care teams, and we would like to educate people together to work in these care teams.”

Additionally, she said, private development in the park would be “mission-aligned” with the proposed college.


Wehmeier noted that the concept of a medical park was more alluring to medical industries and that the City of Jefferson would be in less competition for more traditional business parks that surrounding communities already have established.

DeKrey said that when they met with the Des Moines University provost, she asked him would he do differently at this school.

“That school was founded in 1896,” she said. “He said student housing on campus and the ability to expand. We have tried to reserve those for the future college.”

Lefebvre emphasized that accessibility and visibility of the area were paramount.

“This is extraordinarily accessible since it already has a cut-away from Highway 26,” he said. “Its visibility makes a huge statement. The college will be a resource for all of the communities in the area and a strong statement for the county. It is almost like the prow of a ship since it is so wonderfully positioned. This is about Jefferson County, but it is also about the State of Wisconsin. It is about this site being the hub or lynchpin about how health care is going to transform itself in Wisconsin.”

In answer to another question, DeKrey explained the process of new market tax credits work. In short, she described that projects applying for the credits are reviewed by federal agencies since it is a federal tax program. Those projects are assessed, and then allocated to the state governments. In Wisconsin, the government assigns those credits to the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority (WHEDA), which then looks at projects that are ready to be started within a few months of WHEDA receiving the credits, and then it provides the funding.

Wehmeier added that usually, credits are capped for specific projects unless those projects, like the proposed osteopathic college, are within a designated Opportunity Zone; then, there are no caps.

City of Jefferson Mayor Dale Oppermann was present at the town hall. The last speaker of the evening, he commented on the benefits the osteopathic college would bring.

“This project is really an opportunity that is bigger than just the City of Jefferson,” he said. “It will benefit all of Jefferson County. It creates opportunities for economic development and, certainly, a chance to make a difference in improving health care throughout the state of Wisconsin.”

After the town hall was adjourned by the Finance Committee, Wehmeier said he was pleased with the level of participation and questions generated Tuesday.

“I think it was a good showing,” he said. “Part of the intent was to educate, but also to have a dialogue, and talk about whether this is a benefit to the community or not. I think we saw that tonight, and we will continue the conversation and make a determination from the board’s perspective if this is, indeed, the right direction for the county.”

The Finance Committee will discuss the osteopathic college again at its Dec. 5 meeting. That will provide another public feedback opportunity, although it will be a regular committee meeting, not a town hall session, that begins at 8:30 a.m.

The full county board likely will vote on the letter of intent at its Dec. 11 meeting, which starts at 7 p.m.