Masters Tournament commits $6 million for new cancer facility, children's camp

A new cancer center at Georgia Regents University got a big boost from the Masters Tournament on Tuesday in securing crucial local matching funding needed to release state bond money.

The Community Foundation for the Central Savannah River Area announced a $6 million commitment from the tournament to help meet the local match needed for a new cancer research building at GRU and for a camp for children with disabilities and illnesses. The gift is in addition to the annual support the Masters provides through the foundation to dozens of local charities, said Augusta National Golf Club spokesman Steve Ethun.

GRU Cancer Center Director Samir Khleif said $4 million of that gift will go toward the $12.5 million local match needed to build the facility. It is part of a drive to make the GRU cancer center the state’s second National Cancer Institute-designated Cancer Center, behind Winship Cancer Institute at Emory University, but Georgia’s first at a public university. The University System of Georgia Board of Regents already has $45 million in bond funding sold for the $62.5 million project, and $5 million more in bond funding is budgeted.

GRU has pledged to raise the remaining $12.5 million, and the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget requires that two-thirds of that be in the bank before it will release the bond funding. Because the bond funding was sold this fiscal year, the budget office would like to see that money in the bank by the end of this fiscal year, June 30, so the project can stay on track, an official said last month.

Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver has led the charge to get the city to provide the remaining local support, eventually through the next special purpose local option sales tax funding. To speed up the process, the Augusta Commission on Tuesday approved an $8 million loan that would help provide the funding necessary to meet the required local match until the sales tax funding becomes available. The foundation’s news released noted that $8.5 million in private support was needed, and Copenhaver did not return calls Tuesday night to address the $500,000 discrepancy.

“To me, it’s personal,” Copenhaver said at Tuesday morning’s announcement of the $6 million gift. “I lost my mother to cancer. I want us to be a destination for healing.”

The 115,000-square-foot research building would be the first part of what eventually will be a much larger facility that would allow the cancer center to consolidate its research and all of its clinical treatment areas in one place, Khleif said.

“The reason this is the first phase is this is what is available currently from the state” and the other sources, he said.

A design firm has been selected by the Board of Regents, and concept work has begun. Design and program development typically take about a year, Khleif said. A second phase would be up to 190,000 square feet, and a third phase is possible after that, he said. Later phases are more likely to be paid for by fundraising and clinical revenue, he said.

Now, patients might travel to a dozen different places to get all of their care, from chemotherapy to imaging to oral care, but that will be in one place in the future, together with research, which should enhance the chances of getting the NCI designation, Khleif said.

“It helps in the NCI designation on multiple levels, particularly when you have all of the clinicians and the basic scientists under one roof,” he said. “That enhances interaction and potentially enhances the development of novel clinical trials. And it enhances the collaboration and the generation of grants.”

It also shows a commitment, not only from the university but also the community and the state, which is something the NCI looks for, Khleif said.

Getting the designation is usually at least an eight-year process, and he estimated the university could achieve it by 2019 or 2020.

The designation not only includes enhanced funding but also elevates a cancer center’s status. Khleif said the center could become “one of the destination cancer centers nationally for therapy and treatment and of course to put it on the national map as one of the best in the country.”

The cancer center is already attracting acclaim for its work in immunotherapy and cancer vaccines, “so we’re looking into a very bright future,” he said.

“We’re looking into a future that helps our patients and community with great service,” Khleif said.

In addition to the cancer center, the gift announced Tuesday will help create Camp Lakeside, a children’s camp in Lincoln County. It will be a collaboration among the cancer center, Children’s Hospital of Georgia and The Family Y of Greater Augusta. The camp will include 20 cabins; a multipurpose building with a gym, cafeteria and meeting rooms; a swimming pool; a tennis court; and a playground.

“Through the Masters Tournament, we remain committed to the tradition established by our founders to give back, and that includes sharing our resources with the community that supports us so graciously,” said Billy Payne, the chairman of Augusta National and the Masters.

Staff Writer Susan McCord contributed to this report.

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