ST. CLOUD — Plans for a new medical school in St. Cloud that focuses on Minnesota's rural populations are moving ahead with backing from the University of Minnesota's Board of Regents.

The University of Minnesota and CentraCare — central Minnesota's largest health care provider — are planning to house the proposed school in a 60,000-square-foot building near CentraCare Plaza on the west side of St. Cloud.

Dr. Ken Holmen, president and chief executive of CentraCare, told members of the U's Board of Regents at a meeting on Friday that it will cost about $18 million to repurpose the former administrative building into the Medical Education Center. It's meant to house the medical school, simulation centers and other educational space. Plans also call for expanded residency training and clinical partnerships.

The board unanimously backed a nonbinding statement of interest in the St. Cloud campus, which will have a focus on rural health, similar to the U's Duluth campus focus on rural and Native American Health.

At the December board meeting, Holmen and Dr. Jakub Tolar, dean of the U's medical school, said the goal of the partnership is to make a dent in the rural physician shortage that's expected to grow to 80,000 physicians nationally by 2030. The disparity causes rural patients to face longer wait times, travel farther to access care and experience poorer health outcomes than their urban counterparts.

"This is an implementable plan that will directly help rural communities," Tolar said Friday. "But it fits into the larger scope and vision for the health and well-being that we have an obligation to deliver for the state of Minnesota."

If the project moves forward as planned, the campus would be accredited and begin offering rotations for Twin Cities campus students by early next year. In 2025, the school would launch new residency program slots and open with its first class of students. The school's total enrollment is estimated to be at least 80 students.

Holmen said the project will be funded through CentraCare's reserves, a significant philanthropic campaign, federal grants and state funding. Tolar said any legislative funding requests for the St. Cloud campus won't be tied to or compete with other U funding requests.

The St. Cloud campus will be the first new campus to open in Minnesota since 1972, when the U's Duluth campus and the Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine in Rochester opened. A banker in the Sibley County town of Gaylord planned to open a private osteopathic school in 2020, but the proposed site is empty and local leaders consider the project to be dead.

Tolar said he plans to come back in front of the board in the fall with a definitive agreement for the campus.

Dr. Ruth Johnson, a regent and physician at Mayo Clinic, reflected on the half-century since the Duluth and Rochester medical campuses opened and noted that, in that time, the population of Minnesota has grown from about 3.8 million to 5.8 million. However, the number of medical students has not increased.

"I think this partnership will be excellent, and I think it fits ... with the land grant mission of the University of Minnesota," Johnson said. "We want to educate real people — the folks of Minnesota — and that includes the fact that we really need to look at the rural parts of our state."