by Jon W. Sparks
St. Jude’s 2016-2021 Strategic Plan would have shocked Danny Thomas.
So says Dr. James Downing, the institution’s president and CEO, who observes that the founder of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital had an extraordinarily expansive vision to fulfill and cultivated smart people to bring it about. One of those people — Dr. Donald Pinkel — was chosen in 1961 as the first director and CEO of St. Jude. Downing says he had an opportunity to sit with Pinkel who told him he couldn’t believe what it looks like today and that Danny wouldn’t have believed it either.
It is, after all, a plan that has ambitions on a global scale that emanate from its campus Downtown.
“Our strategic plan started out as my vision,” Downing says, “but it was really developed as a massive effort across the institution with 180 people involved over a seven-month period, including board leadership, members of ALSAC, faculty, and staff leadership across the institution.”
The feeling was that in the previous decade, significant strides had been made in the institution and in research with, for example, the pediatric cancer genome project.
“Our fundraising was going very well,” Downing says. “It was a time to look at the world at large where the voids were in leadership in pediatric catastrophic diseases and what we might be able to contribute to that.”
That, Downing says, would require not only strengthening the campus — Downing calls it “the mother ship” — but amping up the effort globally. When Pinkel started at the helm of St. Jude, the survival rate in pediatric cancer was poor. Now there is an 80 percent overall cure rate, and Downing says, “That’s great, except it still means almost one in five kids that walk through the door are going to die.”
St. Jude has always looked beyond its doors, but it had reached limits. Its international outreach program had done all it could do with its organizational structure, Downing says, and only reaching about 3 percent of the kids in the world with cancer. “If one honestly looked at the data and looked at the lack of data, one could estimate that perhaps nine in ten kids with cancer are actually dying of the disease. What were we going to do about it?”
The strategic plan was constructed with that in mind by calling for new programs on campus and expanding the number of patients it could treat. “We had to invest in infrastructure, we had to invest in basic research and clinical and support structures, and we had to look globally and develop the right kind of program that could actually impact globally,” Downing says.
The Impact On Memphis
The organization is two years into the ambitious plan and its effect on Memphis is being felt. “We’re bringing incredible people into the organization,” Downing says. “They’re becoming part of this community, and they will influence this community.” There will be a 28 percent increase in faculty over the six years of the plan and a 25 percent increase in overall employees. “Many of those are coming from outside the area, so that’s going to have a big impact,” he says.
There are also St. Jude’s connections with other institutions in town, such as the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, the University of Memphis, and Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital. Beyond the medical areas, it also works on different levels with tech and other corporate firms.
As the plan continues, Downing has brought in a significant amount of new leadership. Some have come up through the ranks at St. Jude and many are new to Memphis. “For most of them, Memphis is not an obstacle,” Downing says. They like the city, he says, and its neighborhoods. They’re sometimes surprised that what they’ve heard about schools and the city’s crime is not accurate. “They come for St. Jude,” he says. “They see it and they think, ‘Wow, wait a minute — this is something different and I can make a difference.’”
St. Jude is also increasing the number of patients it sees. It’s expanded the idea of the patient experience with new in-patient floors geared to the patient, family, and staff.
“It’s somewhere between a children’s museum and a pediatric hospital,” Downing says. The family experience office has Zip cars for the families, babysitting services, a concierge service. “And we’re going to build out a town square concept in the patient care center that will be a place for the patients and families with a school, a church, a store, a bank, a bakery, a coffee shop, and a place for them just to sit and relax in private to get away from things.”
At the heart of what St. Jude does, of course, is the science. “It sits as the foundation of all future discoveries,” Downing says. “We’re strengthening our basic science. We’re building a research building, the largest building ever built on campus, about 600,000 square feet. It’ll cost about half a billion dollars.” Construction is expected to begin by next April and the process will involve tearing down a building, relocating departments, and renovating elsewhere on campus. The plan includes expanding several departments, including cell molecular biology, structural biology, and chemical biology.
“Developmental neurobiology will be in there,” Downing says. “Immunology will be in there with some expansion, and we have the new graduate program.” The program’s first class will arrive in August. “It’s an incredible group of individuals coming from around the United States to get their PhDs here on the St. Jude campus,” he says.
And there’s much more beyond the research center.
Genome sequencing is crucial to understanding pediatric cancer and identifying patients who are at risk. Handling that will be a new data center scheduled for completion this June although it will take six months to move in. “It’ll be a large data center really dedicated to research,” Downing says. “The building is somewhere around $50 million. It’s a massive tool for us to use to advance our work in our department of computational biology and our imaging facilities across the campus. Now everyone is using big data and analytical approaches to analyze that data.”
Also on the major construction to-do list is a new clinical office building and out-patient building, now in the planning stages. “The idea is to have an office building where all the clinical faculty and clinical support services are,” Downing says, “and to have an out-patient clinic building that would include the routine follow-up of our patients, the long-term follow-up of our patients, St. Jude Life, and for non-malignant hemologic and HIV patients. It’s likely going to be a relatively tall building.”
Some of the work is done, some just being planned. It all requires some dazzling choreography to juggle new construction, renovations, moving of offices and departments, and keeping the campus running smoothly for patients, families, and staff.
St. Jude’s direct impact on neighborhoods comes from acquisition of land near the campus and securing housing around the city for families, graduate students, and visitors.
That’s the job of Richard Shadyac, CEO of ALSAC, the companion organization charged with keeping contributions coming in for St. Jude. “We’ve been busy acquiring the additional pieces of real estate that are around our campus,” he says, “so that we can fully define the campus and then make strategic decisions about which of these parcels are most important from a development perspective, and then, which ones might be strategic pieces for the community.”
One such acquisition is east of Danny Thomas Blvd. for St. Jude’s three-story data center. Shadyac says there is other property in that area they want to acquire.
Property purchased in recent months in the Pinch District is likely to be used for residences and office space.
Downing stressed that St. Jude isn’t developing the adjacent Pinch District. “We’re not taking out money that comes from donors and developing Pinch. We’re just working in partnership with others to use it. The property that we’ve acquired, the vast majority of it is for our future growth.”
Money to improve infrastructure around St. Jude is coming from the state and city, with $37 million promised to that end. An additional $12 million from the state is hoped for.
The strategic plan is looking for an estimated 1,800 jobs to be created with the expansion, some to St. Jude and some to ALSAC.
“The majority of the jobs will be on the St. Jude side, because it’s obviously bigger than ALSAC,” Shadyac says. “These are good jobs, middle-income jobs. I think the numbers that I’ve seen between both organizations, the average is around $65,000, so these are significant jobs and I’m hopeful that many of our employees are going to decide that they want to live Downtown. It’s why I think development in the Pinch district needs to happen sooner rather than later so that we can keep some of our employees and some of these new employees even closer to our campus.”
Shadyac says that the St. Jude operation has an overall economic impact of about $2.5 billion annually. “I think that that is a conservative number, in all candor, but we expect that to grow to at least $3.5 billion or $4 billion by the end of this six-year strategic plan, and we’re two years into that plan.”
He says that it’s important for the economy to remain stable for the plan to stay on track. “If there was an economic downturn, obviously that would have a significant impact on our ability to raise the money that’s necessary, but we’re hopeful that we’ll continue to see at least a period of stability, if not growth, so that we can successfully execute this plan and impact more and more kids.”
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