MOULTRIE, Ga. — When the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine opened its South Georgia campus in 2019, it did so in part because of financial contributions from local government.
The Moultrie City Council, Colquitt County Board of Commissioners and Moultrie-Colquitt County Development Authority put in money and services valued at between $3 million and $4 million to help PCOM South Georgia get started.
As the medical college looks to expand, it’s again seeking local support, and it’s finding it.
When the school opened, it offered a single course of study: A Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine degree. Just a year later, it added a Master of Science degree in Biomedical Sciences, but that program could be taught in the existing space.
Now it’s looking to add three new programs at the site on Tallokas Road, and they will require a new building.
“Since welcoming our inaugural class in 2019, PCOM South Georgia has reached near-capacity for all classes,” Dean and Chief Academic Officer Dr. H. William Craver told The Observer by email. “We currently have three classes of Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine students and two classes of Biomedical Sciences graduate students. In August 2022, all of our classes will be at-capacity.”
The Development Authority dedicated $1.5 million to the expansion June 2, and the county Hospital Authority has also chipped in $500,000. Development Authority Chairman Jim Matney and President Barbara Grogan approached the Colquitt County Commission and Moultrie City Council over the past few weeks, seeking $1.5 million from each.
The county commission voted Sept. 7 to give $1.5 million to the project over three years, and the city council voted Thursday to give $1.35 million over five years. Both votes made the payments contingent upon the expansion actually happening.
The votes give PCOM $5 million in commitments. Next, Matney said, they’ll take those local commitments to the State of Georgia to try to get matching funds. Their hope is to have $10 million with which to build a 10,000-square-foot building alongside the existing 75,000-square-foot facility.
The current plan calls for programs in occupational therapy, speech and audiology, but they could change depending on the final assessment of needs, Grogan said.
“The programs also depend upon what PCOM can receive accreditation for,” she said. “They may add these programs or others, though we feel confident one of them will be the Doctor of Occupational Therapy. The accreditation process for any program includes being able to show capacity in building space for teaching as well.”
Matney, who is also president and CEO of Colquitt Regional Medical Center, told commissioners there are currently 367 openings in Georgia for doctors of occupational therapy, so training them here would certainly fill a need.
PCOM South Georgia currently has 197 students, according to Jordan Roberts, PR/social media specialist for the college. That includes three cohorts of 55-59 students each working toward Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine degrees as well as two cohorts of 11-13 students each working toward master’s degrees in biomedical sciences.
Grogan said the new programs will add an estimated 130-135 students per year at the school, but the exact number will depend on the actual programs that are accredited there.
The project has two timelines, Grogan said. One is about the funding; with the local commitments in hand, PCOM and the Development Authority can go to the state to seek matching money.
The other timeline involves accreditation of the programs that PCOM wants to place here.
“We’re within weeks of going to accreditation to start planning these schools,” Matney told commissioners Sept. 7.
Matney opened his presentation to county commissioners by telling how his hometown of Grundy, Va., transformed itself from a coal-mining town to an educational hub when the coal industry crashed. He envisioned a similar transformation for Moultrie and Colquitt County, not leaving agriculture behind but adding to it by becoming a center for medical education.
The seeds for that were planted in 2010 with the founding of the South Georgia Medical Education and Research Consortium, the brainchild of Matney’s predecessor, Jim Lowry, who was then-president of Colquitt Regional Medical Center. Members were Colquitt Regional, Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany, Archbold Memorial Hospital in Thomasville, Tift Regional Medical Center in Tifton and South Georgia Medical Center in Valdosta.
The goal of the consortium was to create medical residency programs at each of the participating hospitals, each focused on a different specialty for which there was a great need. A residency program — also called graduate medical education — is the hands-on training doctors get after medical school that qualifies them to practice medicine.
Colquitt Regional opened Georgia South Family Medicine Residency in 2015 and accepted its first three residents the following summer. The residency program was built in cooperation with the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, a medical college with campuses in Philadelphia, Pa., and Suwannee, Ga. Relationships forged while creating the residency program set the stage for the creation of PCOM South Georgia.
Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital had a residency program already in place when the consortium was founded, and other hospitals have made progress on residency programs at their facilities since then.
Matney told commissioners that from the beginning he had envisioned PCOM South Georgia having 800-1,000 students in multiple programs of study.
Matney and Grogan described the impact PCOM South Georgia has already had on Colquitt County, implying a greater impact as it expands.
While spending can’t be traced to specific groups of people, Grogan cited one example: Sales tied to food and bars in Colquitt County was $924,000 in 2019 (the medical college opened in August of that year) but nearly doubled to $1.72 million the following year.
The students have also spurred the building of housing, Matney said, which was already in short supply. He said when PCOM was preparing to open its doors two years ago, 24 students still didn’t have a place to live. Since then a number of apartment complexes, duplexes and single family homes have been built or are currently under construction.
Such development also improves the tax base because land with a house on it is valued higher than a vacant lot.
PCOM South Georgia itself currently has 54 employees, including 26 instructors.
Progress and hesitation
The proposal drew emotional support from one county commissioner. Mike Boyd told his colleagues about his mother, whom he described as “a well-educated woman.”
“We went through a time where people here didn’t want progress. She never had a chance …” Boyd said, his voice breaking. “I never want to see this community not make progress in my lifetime.”
Boyd, whose said his child is involved in the healthcare field here, made the motion to provide $1.5 million over three years as requested.
Commissioner Chris Hunnicutt was the only vote against it, not necessarily because he opposed the proposal but because it had been presented in the same meeting that a vote was expected. With no time to fully consider it, he voted no rather than support something he hadn’t researched and thought through.
For the Moultrie City Council the vote was unanimous, not counting one absentee at Thursday morning’s called meeting. Even at that meeting, though, there were concerns raised.
“We have to keep this in mind,” Moultrie City Manager Pete Dillard told the council. “We have to remember that those people who live in the city also live in the county. They will end up getting taxed twice.”
In addition to what Dillard called double taxation, he reminded councilmen of the upcoming closure of the Spence Field wastewater treatment plant, an expensive project the city hopes to pay for with federal coronavirus funds that have not been received yet.
After discussion among Mayor Bill McIntosh, Matney, Dillard and city council members, Councilmember Cecil Barber moved to provide $1.35 million over five years while Councilmember Lisa Clark Hill seconded. Councilmember Cornelius Ponder was not present, but approval was unanimous among those who were.
“I think the people of Moultrie will see that we kept them in mind when the council made their decision as they always do. PCOM has been a wonderful addition to Moultrie and we want to continue to show our support for the program,” said McIntosh in an interview following the meeting.