Meg Farris / Eyewitness News
NEW ORLEANS -- One of the largest construction projects in state history is a major step closer to moving from blueprints and artist's renderings to reality.
The groundbreaking today for the new teaching hospital marks the next phase of the project that's been years in the making.
Its supporters turned out in high numbers, but still some disagree with the project.
The massive plot of land near downtown is nearly cleared and after years of talking about the need to move the state health care system and its hospital into the 21st century, the day was finally here.
By some estimates, the crowd was nearly a thousand strong. Doctors, nurses and medical students gathered in the mid-day sun to see state and city politicians and leaders break ground on the new University Medical Center.
Even though their shovels just turned ceremonial dirt, it represents the beginning of construction that will soon begin near downtown. They say the new University Medical Center will be a hospital that attracts doctors, scientists and pharmaceutical companies. It will also train the future doctors in the state.
Next door will be the new VA Medical Center, the first new one to be built in the U.S. in 20 years. Together, lawmakers believe they will create 17,000 jobs and $9.6 billion in personal earnings for employees over the next 20 years.
'This particular project will dwarf the consequences of both the Superdome and the Convention Center, and has the potential of transforming the city of New Orleans,' said New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu.
The leaders talked about how long it's been getting to this point, where the huge section of land, now nearly cleared, would be ready for construction. They said hurricanes Katrina and Rita just put a spotlight on changes that the state knew had to be made to the health care system, long before the destruction hit.
'And so we stand here today, after a long bruising fight with a lot of people about whether or not this was a good idea. And sometimes amidst all of that arguing and fighting, people can lose sight of the big vision and big picture that makes all of the fights worthwhile,' the mayor said to the crowd.
Those for the project say it will not only serve the uninsured and insured patients of the entire state and gulf region, but it will attract scientists who make new discoveries and the pharmaceutical businesses to bring those discoveries to the market place.
'The impact is going to be tremendous. This is going to be the true anchor for the translation of knowledge,' said Dr. Nicolas Bazan, the director of the LSU Neuroscience Center.
They say doctors will want to practice here.
'As far as when I finish my training, I would love to come back here if we had, like, a new facility. It's pretty exciting stuff for us,' said third-year LSU medical student Sophia Mai.
Missing from the podium was the governor, but other lawmakers said they knew he was on board with the project. Also not at the event was Sen. David Vitter, who has long opposed the $1.2 billion project, and who says he is unsure if the hospital will attract paying patients with health insurance.
'My concern is a whole lot for the state taxpayer who's going to pick up the tab if the new Charity loses in that competition in a big way. I think the state and LSU's business models are just way too rosy and optimistic and I think they need to be a lot more realistic in terms of sizing and designing the hospital,' said Sen. Vitter, R-La.
Doctors on the front lines disagree, saying the teaching hospital could even be bigger.
'We definitely need this hospital. We're at the point where we're questioning just what more we can do with what we have. So we've got to have this hospital,' said Dr. James Aiken, the medical director of Emergency Preparedness for the hospital and LSU Health Sciences Center.
And while some still question the size, scope and cost of the project, it was clear at today's ceremony that the state officials leading the project disagree.
'We cannot underestimate the importance of this project,' said Bruce Greenstein, the secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. 'Those who just want to build old Charity again, without the vision of a center of excellence, will have a short sighted view of what the future of medicine will look like.'
'And people said we'd never be able to build this hospital. And people said we'd never get the money. Well we did it,' exclaimed Paul Rainwater, Louisiana commissioner of administration.
The ground breaking today was just ceremonial. Construction begins the beginning of June, with the hospital finished around 2014 or 2015. The construction will be on the ground only. Then in January 2012 the vertical construction will begin.