Hoffmann-La Roche's sprawling vacant campus on the Nutley-Clifton border will rebound as the first private medical school in New Jersey, officials announced Thursday.
Hackensack University Health Network has forged a partnership with Seton Hall University to open a school for doctoral and nursing students inside a six-story building on Roche's former 110-acre site, the heads of the university and hospital said.
Just shy of 200 people -- including Gov. Chris Christie, Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., local elected officials and a legion of reporters -- packed an auditorium inside the prospective future home of the school, which is slated to open in fall 2017, to hear the news Thursday morning.
"This is big. This is like a grand-slam home run in the last inning of a World Series," Clifton Mayor James Anzaldi told FiOS1 News. "This is big for us and big for New Jersey."
Roche, the Swiss pharmaceuticals giant, shuttered the massive site straddling Essex and Passaic counties in late 2013 after deciding to relocate its U.S. headquarters to San Francisco. The move dealt an enormous financial blow to the area, with the departure of roughly 2,000 jobs.
Hackensack University Health Network said in a release that the new school would boost the region's economy and curb a critical physician shortage. By 2020, New Jersey is expected to face a shortfall of 2,500 doctors, according to Hackensack hospital officials.
Christie said he was "thrilled to see two such important institutions to New Jersey continue to grow and expand and create a vision for our state that is positive."
The governor commended the stakeholders for turning the devastating exit of Roche -- "a disappointing decision from the perspective of the state of New Jersey" -- and "working hard to turn it into something positive for tomorrow."
Seton Hall plans to integrate its nursing and allied health programs with the new school, which will use Hackensack's health care facilities for training.
The school should eventually have about 500 students, who are expected to get hands-on experience at the 11 hospitals in the combined Hackensack UMC/Meridian Health network.
The two health providers announced months ago that they plan to merge and form the largest group of hospitals in the state, said Robert Garrett, the president and CEO of Hackensack University Health Network. A tentative agreement on the merger was reached in October should be finalized by April, he said. Government health and competition regulators will then have to review the deal, according to Garrett.
Roche has already started environmental cleanup on the polluted Kingsland Street site, Garrett said, adding that contamination wouldn't hold up progress on the plans.
The pharmaceuticals maker "will be turning this over as a clean, environmentally sound property," he said, and "their timeline [for the remediation] is very similar to our timeline."
Garrett said several-hundred jobs will be produced by the medical school alone. Between the research institute that the partners intend to also build and the other businesses anticipated to flock to the site, Garrett said "hopefully many if not all" the jobs that were lost when Roche left will be restored.
"This will be the center point of great things to happen," Anzaldi said, adding that the school would be the anchor tenant to rejuvenate the entire campus by enticing biomedical and other related firms to move in.
"This is what we dreamed of" back when the site became dormant, he said.
The announcement was also a relief of sorts, since city officials were staunchly opposed to any additional housing or retail moving in along the Route 3 corridor.
Traffic "would be spilling onto city roads both in Clifton and Nutley and we recognized it would be a quality of life issue from day one," Anzaldi said.
Gabriel Esteban, Seton Hall University president, said the program offered by the school would be innovative in that it would integrate prospective doctors with nursing students and others going into allied fields.
"That is how health care should be provided," he said. "That is the exciting piece. These different health professions, they look at illness from different perpectives. By bringing them together you get this 360 look. And if you can get them to work together as a team, I think it's going to benefit the patient."
Esteban said the school would also support the regional economy because physicians who are trained in the state are twice as likely to stay and open up practices in New Jersey.
No student dorms would be located on the new academic campus, which is slated to occupy about 14 acres or 500,000 square feet of the entire former Roche site, Esteban said.
The deal needs approval from the New Jersey Economic Development Authority.
The state has four public medical schools. Two are affiliated with Rutgers University and two are aligned with Rowan University.
"This is a big deal my friends," Pascrell told the crowd. "The consequences of this will be seen for years to come. And what will follow...is spectacular to even think about."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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