It was a who's who of the South Jersey and state business and political community at today's groundbreaking for the $100 million Cooper Cancer Institute facility in Camden.
The planned four-story, 103,050-square-foot institute will be part of the Cooper Health System, whose main hospital is across the street on Haddon Avenue.
Although Gov. Chris Christie shared a stage with Cooper Health System Chairman George E. Norcross III and Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-West Deptford), there was no mention of the reported compromise being struck for a partnership or merger of Rutgers and Rowan universities, But Christie, while talking about the cancer institute, did call South Jersey "a region of the state that has been frequently under-served" and that past inequities should be corrected. Christie said his role is "not to pose and preen and send out press releases" and that he would make no apologies for decisions he has made about distribution of resources in the state, or partnerships he has made.
"The bigger part of the story is that this community has come together to speak loudly of what its members need and deserve," said Christie, noting the institute project will help put people back to work.
When asked after the event about the status of a Rutgers-Rowan merger or partnership, Sweeney told reporters he is committed to finding a way to "get this done," without giving details of what "this" is. Sweeney said he is drafting legislation and hopes to have something in legislators' hands by June 1. Sweeney said the governor, Senate and Assembly all have a say in what will happen.
"We think we can do this," said Sweeney, noting that the Newark piece of any action is just as important as the Camden piece.
During the event, which included symbolic shoveling of dirt due to the rain, Norcross spoke about Cooper's commitment to Camden, saying, "It will never leave and will always maintain its presence."
Attendees included business leaders like Denise Morrison, CEO of Campbell Soup, and insurance executives Annette Catino, of QualCare, and Joseph Berardo Jr., of MagnaCare, as well as former governors Jim McGreevey and Jim Florio.
Sweeney noted McGreevey made a commitment to support construction of the facility while he was governor and Christie kept it.
"We can't afford not to do this," said Sweeney. "It's one more step forward, not backward. … Believe me, this doesn't happen in an easy way."
State Sen. Donald Norcross (D-Camden) called the cancer institute "another piece in the puzzle" to help recreate Camden, while naming the Cooper Medical School of Rowan University as yet another piece.
Officials said Cooper University Hospital has been providing cancer care to patients since it opened its doors 125 years ago, and its Cooper Cancer Institute now treats more than 2,000 new patients a year, resulting in 55,000 outpatient visits annually. Currently, the institute treats patients in Camden and Voorhees but the new building, projected to open in Fall 2013, will provide integrated treatments.
Catino said the new facility will continue to be an alternative for patients who can stay local instead of heading to Philadelphia for care.
"We think it's going to be a great economic engine for this region," said Catino. "We are thrilled."
Dr. Peter S. Amenta, dean of the UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, said the facility will be "huge" for the region.
"The potential for research growth for South Jersey is fantastic," Amenta said.
The project is evidence of efforts by George Norcross to revitalize Camden, said Bill Smith, vice president of finance at Cooper Health System.
"I don't believe he'll let anything stop him from having Camden get its share," Smith said.