Ten years after the U.S. Congress marked the Fitzsimons Army Medical Center in Aurora for closure, a 20-year, $4.3 billion redevelopment of the 578-acre site could position Colorado as a major biotechnology hub.
Congress announced in 1995 during base realignment and closure season that Army operations at Fitzsimons would cease, eliminating 4,000 military and civilian jobs. However, officials from Aurora, the University of Colorado Hospital and the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center submitted a proposal to the Department of Defense requesting a redesign and redevelopment of Fitzsimons with plans to transition the base into a world-class medical campus and biotechnology center.
Shortly after the DOD approved the project, the Fitzsimons Redevelopment Authority formed. In 1999, as the last of the Army base’s activity ended, construction began on several medical facility projects.
In 2000, the first phase of the Colorado Bioscience Park opened featuring an incubator for early stage biotech companies.
Other key focal points of the biotechnology center include bioscience research, medical device product development, diagnostics, new technology development, offices for venture capital investors and attorneys assisting with intellectual property development and much more, said Jill Farnham, the acting executive director of the Fitzsimons Redevelopment Authority.
She hopes the project will ground what she referred to as Colorado’s “boom and bust economy, one that is targeted to one industry at any one time.”
“We will join Boston, San Diego, San Francisco, Philadelphia and St. Louis, which is an up and coming biotech area, as biotech hubs,” Farnham said. “This is an opportunity to grow biotechnology here … one that will put Colorado on the map.”
The project will take about 20 years to build, she said.
From 2001 to 2004, specialty clinics and patient care facilities opened. And in 2004, the Denver-based Children’s Hospital began construction at Fitzsimons while Congress approved plans to relocate the VA Hospital to the site. The latter is scheduled for 2008.
The project’s anchors, the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center and the University of Colorado Hospital, will occupy 227 acres. Their move to Fitzsimons is expected in 2007.
It’s all possible because of philanthropy and grants, Farnham said. The Phil Anschutz Foundation has been the largest donor to the center, with other money coming from grants, the federal government and net profits from on-campus activity.
The culmination of those investments is an array of medical centers, hospitals and research centers in one location, which is unparalleled when compared to other biotechnology hubs, Farnham said.
Denise Brown, the executive director of the Colorado BioScience Association, agreed.
“The physical campus of Fitzsimons is the integration of life science education, clinical patient care and basic science research all in one place,” Brown said. “It provides the jewel in the crown for the Colorado bioscience industry. Other bioscience developments across the country include some of the aspects of this center but not all, like this one.”
The entire state will benefit from the Fitzsimons model, she said.
“We will bring in heavy hitters in the industry,” Brown said. “The people who will come to the campus will contribute way beyond the activities at Fitzsimons. They may be working with all kinds of new technologies. Fitzsimons will become the single place where we can see the benefits of those different activities, and an end result is the commercialization of those new technologies.”
Ongoing research at Fitzsimons has already produced benefits, said Karen Newell, an associate professor of biology at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and the chief executive scientific director for the Colorado University Institute of Bioenergetics. “We collaborate with several people at Fitzsimons now who help us translate our basic research into a more clinically relevant research setting,” she said. “We already have access, and I am sure that will expand. It’s also a great clinical setting.”
The Fitzsimons build-out, which will include a hotel, restaurants and retail, will encompass 15 million square feet and employ 32,000 people, Farnham said. Currently, the campus employs 5,500 people, and by the end of 2008, projections more than double that figure to 13,000.
“We are building a core infrastructure for the industry that will have a statewide impact,” she said. “The goal is for Colorado to become a hub for biotechnology, which will diversify the economy.”
Brown added, “Fitzsimons is a tangible example of the type of investment that will help tell the Colorado story and differentiate us from the rest of the country.”