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The Med Mart's new direction is also its best hope for survival

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S cene's recent report that Medical Mart and Convention Center general manager Brian Casey is refocusing the project away from medical sales floors and toward medical education understandably sparked surprise and confusion around town. But it is a mistake to view the potential new direction as a decision project developer MMPI made on the sly that somehow hoodwinks taxpayers and county and city officials out of the business model they originally signed up for. Such thinking is uninformed, myopic, and smacks of the regressivism that has plagued economic development here for decades.

MMPI, too, shouldn't be quick to revert to a plan relying on medical device and equipment showrooms to bring conventions to the city. Any number of medical industry veterans traveling the meeting circuit can be found who would agree with Casey's opinion: that the original plan won't work. Casey's assertion that any Med Mart, even Nashville's proposed mega-building, is too small to accommodate the wide range of medical products necessary to attract a broad variety of conferences, is on target. Medicine is too specialized.

Neither MMPI nor the county originally enlisted anyone with the needed industry-insider expertise when the deal was brokered. Instead, it relied on an outdated and now seemingly whimsical idea from Cleveland Clinic CEO Toby Cosgrove and on MMPI's experts in furniture and home-design marts. Heading the flawed endeavor: Dennis Madden, a former Cuyahoga County administrator with particular experience in human resources. That big-name medical manufacturers were failing to eagerly sign on for either our Med Mart or Nashville's super-sized model became apparent last year. It wasn't until this May that MMPI brought in Casey — the first person attached to the project with actual experience in how medical organizations and manufacturers do things.

County Executive Ed FitzGerald's formation of a panel to oversee Med Mart progress is well-intentioned and long overdue, but it is made up of the wrong people. Adding Cosgrove and the CEOs of University Hospitals and St. Vincent Charity to the standard lineup of city and county players who know nothing about the medical industry won't help — they run hospitals, not high-end device companies. FitzGerald, instead, should have tapped the sales directors for the health-care divisions of GE and Philips, and perhaps added someone from the Medical Device Manufacturers Association — all of whom could explain how the sought-after tenants sell their wares.

A Med Mart with the disparate array of medical furniture, basic supplies, and some new device tenants MMPI revealed in January will attract no medical conferences. A building full of the latest high-tech equipment won't either, because each showroom is likely to be relevant to only a tiny sector of the medical buying world. A Med Mart that targets a certain specialty won't attract conferences. For example, even if all the manufacturers of heart devices could fit into the Med Mart (which they cannot), they would lure only the very few heart specialty meetings able to fit into our convention center.

Casey talked of — and Cleveland Clinic confirmed — negotiations that could unite the Clinic, University Hospitals, and perhaps prominent medical teaching institutions from beyond Ohio in a venture that may establish the Med Mart and convention center as a high-profile venue for continuing medical education. A collaboration along this line could attract conferences here no matter their medical specialty. The medical education angle might not be ideal, but it's more promising than the original plan, and it shouldn't be automatically dismissed just because Cosgrove and Tim Hagan didn't think of it six years ago.

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