Originally created 03/04/03

Setback or disaster?

Did the Medical College of Georgia spoil an opportunity for Fort Gordon to get a new mission when a deal with the North Carolina-based Research Triangle Institute fell through last month?

There are economic development interests in the community who are very disappointed and think that MCG dropped the ball. The plan called for establishing a national disaster medicine institute at the fort - the first of its kind, according to RTI spokesman Robert Helms, that would focus on disaster medicine and encourage industrial development.

This was very important, coming at a time when the community is worried that Fort Gordon could be targeted by the Pentagon for closure in 2005. The program would have provided another strong link between the fort and Augusta. One of the most important things the Pentagon looks at in deciding whether to close down a military base is its economic and social ties to the host community. The stronger the ties, the better the chance of keeping the base.

The deal apparently fell apart when MCG officials would not sign a memorandum of understanding to make MCG and the University of Georgia responsible for developing disaster and operational medicine education programs and the training of medical students, doctors, nurses and other emergency personnel.

Dr. Richard Schwartz, director of MCG's emergency medical department, said he could not sign the agreement because UGA was not represented - its vice president of research was ill and could not attend.

MCG officials also acknowledge they did a poor job of communicating "concerns" about the loosely knit arrangement that was to have included RTI.

Whether or not MCG dropped the ball, as some allege, it is rather alarming that such an opportunity was allowed to wither in such an ambiguous and unnecessary way. Lack of communication? Someone is sick and can't make a meeting? Excuse us, but projects of this magnitude and potential can't be allowed to hinge on such shaky excuses.

Not to be dissuaded, MCG officials say the RTI pullout merely leaves the ongoing initiative here without an official link to RTI's vast network capable of getting products to market. Such a commercial link is available elsewhere, including within MCG and at Georgia Tech, officials say. Even RTI might also still be re-involved.

In addition, if damage was done, it may not be nearly as severe as some of MCG's critics make it out to be - perhaps no more than a temporary setback. MCG and the educational consortium of which it's a part have many irons in the fire that could still make Augusta a hub for educational, research and disaster medical training - with Fort Gordon very much at the center of it all. Indeed, Fort Gordon and MCG are already partnered in projects that are drawing nationwide attention.

Moreover, MCG and its consortium of other universities, including Georgia Tech as well as UGA, will be seeking federal legislation to designate Georgia as a federal lab for homeland security centered at Fort Gordon - a project that would be larger and more ambitious than the one that fell through with RTI, according to MCG officials. We shall see.

But here's what came out of the RTI fiasco, according to one critic who was very close to the action: The foul-up confirms Augusta as a city with disjointed, and sometimes disengaged, leadership, making it risky to do business here. The city doesn't have its act together. The right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing. There is no common vision and little cohesion in the community.

What the city needs to do is to improve communications within the community between different leadership sectors. Get on the same wave-length, and present a united front to the rest of the world. This, obviously, is not happening when there is such a wide disparity of views about the importance of the RTI deal coming apart, or how and why it came apart.

Competition for national supremacy in the emerging field of homeland security - particularly in the specialized field of disaster medicine - is extremely fierce. Augusta has an early lead in this game, thanks to the fact that MCG and others were, remarkably, working on disaster response even prior to the Sept. 11 attacks.

But it won't take too many dropped balls to squander that lead.


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