New St. Thomas University pandemic center to fund businesses
Roughly a third of the $3 million in Cares Act funds Miami-Dade is giving to St. Thomas University’s Center of Pandemic, Disaster and Quarantine Research will be used for local business grants, according to St. Thomas University President David Armstrong.
On Monday, the university formally executed its agreement with the county to receive the funds to develop the center, called the PDQ for short. But by then, the school had already begun to work with the Miami-Dade Chamber of Commerce on giving out about $1 million in grants.
“We’re going to be a pass-through for different entities that are also dealing with Covid issues, so that whole grant [the county gave St. Thomas] is not coming to the PDQ,” Mr. Armstrong said. “Some is going to be given out to grantees who submit their proposals for what they need to survive during Covid. Instead of the county taking all these applications, we can do it for them.”
The school hopes to see a rapid turnaround in businesses spending the money it gives them – by Dec. 15, he said, adding that the flexibility of Cares Act dollars should ease their expenditure.
Miami-Dade received $474 million in Cares Act funds from the state. Any unspent money as of Dec. 30 must be returned to the federal government.
“The money can be used for things businesses have already invested in – it can replace that money – and the majority of the Cares Act has been replacing money businesses had to spend to stay open,” he said. “For us, we have a lot of costs we’ve incurred as it pertains to Covid, and we’ve also incurred a lot of cost to prepare the PDQ. We took a risk that this would be a good thing for Miami, Miami Gardens and the state.”
At some future point, the PDQ will have its own building and a full, dedicated staff whose influence crosses Miami-Dade’s borders for statewide, nationwide and global impacts, he said.
For now, it will operate in an existing facility – albeit one that just finished a massive expansion – and focus on local research, solutions and aid for businesses in the area struggling amid Covid-19.
The physical footprint of the PDQ will be in the school’s rechristened Gus Machado College of Business, which recently completed a $21 million, two-building expansion. St. Thomas will use about $2 million from its Cares Act apportion that county commissioners OK’d Oct. 26 to build out the PDQ within that space.
“We envision it as being a whole building where we are running administrative duties and analysis so that people can have a one-stop shop to go to as it relates to pandemic, disaster and quarantine research information and decisions” he said. “It most likely will start out as a couple offices with access to other accompanying areas.”
As of this writing, PDQ Director Oliver Gilbert III, the immediate former mayor of Miami Gardens who is now serving his first term as a Miami-Dade commissioner, is the school’s only employee whose pay is based solely on his work at the center.
Mr. Gilbert described his role in a September interview with Miami Today as “sitting in a room with a bunch of smart people trying to figure out how the pandemic affected us and planning for how our societal institutions, from business to parks to police to government, everything, can plan if something like this happens again.”
Mr. Armstrong said the school next wants to hire a full-time administrator for the PDQ, whose two chairmen are law professor Todd Clark and Jose Rocha. The center also includes a faculty advisory board with members from multiple departments within the school – law, sciences, nursing, business, data analytics, criminal justice, healthcare and psychology among them.
The center will analyze and use information from those and other departments that relate to its work so that it can then pass the data on to others that can use it. One such example came from the school’s sports administration program, whose faculty warned against closing athletics for the year, Mr. Armstrong said.
“They wrote an article on how schools that are shutting down athletics are making a mistake and why,” he said. “We’re part of the Sun Conference, and there are schools that played the whole fall season. Now our faculty will go back, do the research and answer whether the predictions made in the article were right and give the data behind it.”
So far, St. Thomas has held a couple of meetings under the PDQ banner. The first, a webinar titled “Innovation in the time of Covid-19,” took place in May and featured Touchsuite CEO Sam Zietz, Baptist Health Medical Group CEO Bernie Fernandez, Bilzin Sumberg managing partner Albert Dotson Jr. and Ultimate Software Chief Human Resources Officer Annmarie Neal as panelists.
“That was right in the midst of it,” Mr. Armstrong said. “Many people were so appreciative just to hear from different leaders in different areas about what they were doing and how they were doing it.”
Another seminar occurred Oct. 29 in the moot courtroom of St. Thomas’ law school. Titled “Leadership in the Land of Covid-19,” the event’s panelists included Miami-Dade Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, Florida Rep. Oscar Braynon II, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, Florida Rep. Shervin Jones, then-Miami-Dade Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo Jr. and Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, then a county commissioner.
“We had over 200 people attend virtually and over 100 people here on campus,” Mr. Armstrong said. “That was a great one, especially because it dealt with all the local decisions.
The next event on Dec. 9, he said, will be “Onto Prosperity; Small Business Opportunities in the Land of Covid-19.”
“Another point of the PDQ is that as much as politicians want to say there’s going to be a vaccine and we can shut down and fix it, nobody knows what will work and what won’t, and the whole idea of [these] sessions were to show people how to make good decisions so we could live with this thing, keep people safe and the economy moving,” Mr. Armstrong said. “This word isn’t going to go over well, but it’s my word – you have to have balance. When you have good balance, research and data, you can make good, balanced decisions and move forward.”