A decade-long investment in medical and higher-education facilities in Camden –- the nation’s poorest city, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — was hailed last week as a force for revitalization and a model for other cities.
Representatives of the eight educational and medical anchor institutions that comprise the Camden Higher Education and Healthcare Task Force gathered at the months-old Cooper Medical School of Rowan University as officials detailed how, with a total of $1.1 billion spent on capital projects, wages and other expenditures last year, so-called “Eds and Meds” facilities like Rutgers University-Camden (RUC), the Cooper Health System, Rowan University and Camden County College (CCC) are driving economic development in the city.
Alexander Hatala, president and CEO of Our Lady of Lourdes Health System, called the task force coalition “the beacon of hope here in Camden,” where more than 40 percent of residents live below the poverty line.
“What you see here,” said Camden County Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli, gesturing toward a group of top-level institutional leaders, “is people fighting poverty on a daily basis. What this partnership does is employ people to lift them out of poverty, care for them and provide education for them.”
Cooper Medical School of Rowan University Dean Paul Katz described the report’s numbers , compiled over the past decade, as “eye-popping.”
Task force members provided 38 percent of the city’s total wages and kept overall employment figures almost stable in 2011, in spite of the recession and a 31 percent reduction in municipal administration jobs.
During the same year, colleges and universities in the group taught more than 11,500 students and their health-care counterparts handled more than patient 642,000 visits, a number split about evenly between city residents and nonresidents.
“The investment in ‘Eds and Meds’ is certainly worthwhile and provides a good, solid return on investment,” said Louis Bezich, Cooper Hospital’s chief of staff and chair of the tash force. “Under any measurement this was an outstanding success.”
The effort got its start when the state’s so-called “Camden Recovery Act” infused city government with $175 million while putting Camden under state control until 2010. The educational and medical institutions received about $47 million of that total.
The projects that money funded — such as the Rutgers-Camden law school building, CCC’s technology and media centers, Rowan’s academic building (under construction), a health center and administrative headquarters for CAMcare Health Corp. community health service, and patient pavilions at Cooper Hospital and Our Lady of Lourdes — were really just the beginning.
Those institutions – along with the Virtua health system and the soon-to-be defunct University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) — built on that initial disbursement from the state.
Additional facilities, such as the $139 million Cooper Medical School and the $100 million Cooper Cancer Center , plus a $55 million Rutgers graduate dorm, a 15-acre transit village spearheaded by Our Lady of Lourdes, and Rutgers’ Early Learning Research Academy , were either built in recent years or are still in development.
“These anchor institutions are key to the city’s economic health because of their employment and significant purchasing power,” Bezich added in a prepared statement. “They are fundamentally rooted to Camden by real estate, capital investments and a client base, among other factors.”
Speakers at last week’s assembly asserted that Camden will get a boost from the “Eds and Meds” well into the future. The $5 trillion education and health-care sectors represent almost one-third of the nation’s GDP. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts health care will be the nation’s fastest-growing industry for the next eight years, followed closely by educational services.
Partnerships between higher-education and medical institutions in urban areas are part of a growing nationwide trend, coalition leaders said.
RUC Chancellor Wendell Pritchett said, “Camden really is a national leader in this area. There are states that are asking to get their institutions to work together and they’re providing incentives to do it. People are coming to us to ask how to do it better.”
The relationships the institutions forged 10 years ago will grow stronger after the NJ Medical and Health Sciences Education Restructuring Act was signed into law by Gov. Chris Christie this past summer.
The law establishes a joint board for RUC and Rowan to oversee new and expanded collaborations in the health sciences. Representatives from both schools have been meeting for months to outline plans for future joint efforts.
First on the agenda is construction of the tentatively named Life Science Research Institute in downtown Camden, which will bring together faculty from across many disciplines to conduct research in bioengineering and the basic sciences. In addition, with participation from Rowan’s medical school and Cooper Hospital itself, it is expected to provide doctors and doctors-in-training a place to put into practice clinical applications of the research done at the institute.
Rutgers and Rowan are each contributing $2.5 million annually in seed money. If approved by voters next month, a bond to fund capital investment at the state’s public colleges is expected to contain $80 million to construct the facility.
Those gathered at the medical school last week touted the past successes and the future plans as reason to believe that the “beacon of hope” described by Hatala will shine even brighter
As Cooper’s president and CEO John Sheridan concluded, “We’re competitors in some sense but we’re certainly partners in a much larger sense. We’re all saying, ‘How do we make this a better community?’”