EDITORIAL: Friant is right choice for health sciences university

May 9, 2013

Location offers best chance to succeed and expand.

The Fresno Bee
Sunday, Apr. 14, 2013 | 07:21 PM

When the Assemi family announced in January that it planned to build its California Health Sciences University campus in Friant — not in downtown Fresno — the uproar was loud and immediate.

Critics assailed the project as leapfrog development and said it would trigger more urban sprawl. The decision to build on foothills at Millerton Lake also was seen as a missed opportunity to continue the revitalization of downtown. Finally, some people questioned how a health sciences university could succeed without being situated near a hospital.

Even though we have long supported investment in downtown and believe that Fresno’s historic district will someday flourish, we concur with the Assemi’s decision to locate this ambitious project outside the city limits.

As Farid Assemi explained in a meeting with The Bee’s editorial board on Tuesday, the family hopes to move quickly and it desires room for a first-class campus — with dormitories and recreation space for its full-time students — and the potential to expand in coming decades. At buildout, the university would have an enrollment of 2,500 students.

The attraction of building in Friant extends well beyond the community’s rolling hills for the Assemis. The land they purchased from developers Ben Ewell and John Bonadelle Jr. previously was approved for residential development and includes hook-up to a wastewater treatment plant.

These entitlements, along with owning two large plots of land, conceivably could advance the project faster through the bureaucratic maze than trying to assemble land in downtown Fresno. Absent from the Friant location: dealing with the challenges of historic preservation, infrastructure and parking in downtown.

In addition, California Health Sciences University President Flo Dunn said that a veterinary school is being considered. Such a school would require acreage and zoning not available in downtown Fresno.

It’s safe to say that because of the Assemis’ long track record of downtown investment, some people were surprised when they announced the decision to build in Friant.

In our view, that track record adds credence to their declaration that they weighed all the factors among potential sites, including downtown, and opted for the location that would best advance the health sciences campus and the San Joaquin Valley.

“It has to go where it makes the most sense, and this is it,” Assemi said.

The first effort is a pharmacy college, which is starting in a building in Clovis that was purchased by the family.

A dean, David D. Hawkins, has been hired, and the goal is for the first class of students to begin studies in August 2014. There will be 32 full-time faculty and a staff of 50 at the outset, Hawkins said.

The college of pharmacy must receive full accreditation in order for students to be eligible for certain federal and state financial aid programs — the key to building enrollment. Assemi said that a foundation is being set up to award scholarships to students.

As for downtown Fresno, Dunn said that as the university adds health science colleges, it will have a presence close to Community Regional Medical Center for its junior and senior students.

“Our hope, truly, is to have a free clinic in downtown,”Assemi said. “This whole project is about making a difference.”