The St. Mary of the Plains complex may not sit largely unused for much longer.

Wichita State University and Fort Hays State University are exploring options for turning the facility into a specialized school for medical training, such as physician assistant, bachelors of nursing and physical therapy courses.

Representative Bud Estes brought WSU last month to tour the building, hospital and community. FHSU representatives met with members of Dodge City Community College, Western Plains Medical Complex, city administration and the Dodge City/Ford County Development Corporation on Wednesday to do the same.

"The two universities will sit down and discuss who would offer programs like nursing or physical therapy," Estes said. "It's an exploratory situation. This would not be taking money from the community college. It would not be a take over of the college. They would be partners like the city, county and hospital. That facility would be a standalone facility as a branch of WSU and FHSU, for the purpose of medical training, especially mid-level for western Kansas."

Joann Knight, Dodge City/Ford County Development Corporation executive director, said the organization continually hears from the community the need for advanced medical programs.

Jeff Briggs, the dean of the college of health and life sciences at Fort Hays State University, said his largest concern was if there are enough students in the area to support such programs.

"Institutionally, the concept is fantastic," Briggs said. "We can make a lot of things work. Are there the students? Is there an infrastructure that would attract students to these programs? If we're going to deliver programming in a face-to-face fashion, will we be able to attract the number of students it takes to support it?"

Jeremy Presley, Dodge City Community College board trustee, agreed that was a concern.

"Everybody would like to go with the -- if you build, it they will come  approach, but you have to have money behind that," he said. "Although Hays and Wichita currently support what you offer, you're going to cap yourselves out. As you know, you're medical education comes from clinicals. The majority of those clinicals are provided free of charge. It's provided by instructors who are volunteers. The majority of physicians are not paid to take students. You will run out of those providers in those communities. That's where partnering with us can help you. We have that ability. We also have a very homegrown mentality.

"That's where the leap of faith comes in. It's hard to go out and extrapolate numbers from (Dodge City Community College) and say what the cohort size will be. I think you're missing a lot of unmeasured people. We need the staff and people. If we don't train them, they won't come. If there wasn't a need, you wouldn't see the providers sitting here."

Dodge City commissioner Brian Delzeit agreed.

"I used to be very involved in the high school when our daughters were there," he said. "We were invited to the senior awards banquet. It's amazing the amount of academic scholarships that were being offered to Dodge City high school graduates from Division I colleges that the kids did not take because their parents would not let them leave Dodge. I guarantee it's not just in Ford County; it's the same in Finney and Seward."

Doctor R.C. Trotter said he did think if the facility was converted, students would come.

"I deal with high school kids through athletics," he said. "There's a large number who don't go into the (medical) programs because they'd have to leave. If the opportunity is there, they will go into health care. I think you would attract a whole group of people you're not even tapping."

Graham Glynn, provost of Fort Hays State University, asked how students services and housing would be handled.

The community college administration agreed they could handle additional transfer students for advising, tutoring and financial aid.

Estes said as long as the community college had dorm room, they could rent out space and, "if it were necessary to build a dorm at the facility, it would be done."

Floris Jean Hampton, Dodge City Community College board trustee, asked how the Higher Learning Commission and Board of Regents felt on the matter.

"I don't think it will be that hard to come up with the funding necessary to do this," Estes said. "I think the Board of Regents will be able to understand the value of it and put money into something like this. That would be the next step after FHS and WSU make a proposal. 

"I don't picture this as a full blown university, this is more like a tech school for medical people; it's really a specialized facility. A satellite of universities, but specialized. They aren't going to get a general education from that facility."

He stressed the facility would not interfere with the community college.

"If anybody has fears this has anything to do with the community college, with the tax base or with teachers, put that to rest," he said. "For some reason, other stuff keeps popping up again that has no place here. I don't want to have rumors and feelings that have nothing to do with this. All that will do is submarine an effort that would be fantastic for Dodge City and western Kansas. The idea is to keep some medical people in western Kansas."