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A Real No-Brainer

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While Louisiana officials bemoan the fact that our state was not chosen as the site of a new German steel mill in St. James Parish, some seem oblivious to the fact that a much larger economic engine is already sitting in downtown New Orleans, just waiting to be started up again: the New Orleans Medical District. Pre-Katrina, the health-care and biosciences industry represented a significant share of southeastern Louisiana's economy. Biotech employed almost 2,700 people and medical-related fields put another 6,000 well-paid professionals to work. Even at those numbers, New Orleans ranked 67th among the nation's biotech markets -- behind such "second tier" markets as Orlando, Tampa, St. Louis, Indianapolis and Memphis, yet ahead of Nashville, Birmingham and Louisville. With state lawmakers in a biennial "fiscal session," now is the time to invest in an industry that's a proven winner -- and we don't have to throw millions in "inducements" at foreign corporations to make this work. The infrastructure, the land, the university partners -- even the federal component -- are already here. What's needed are vision and leadership, along with a financial investment by the state.

This one is a real no-brainer.

Before and after Katrina, bioscience institutions conducted cutting-edge research in New Orleans, generating more than $180 million in federal and private grants in 2003. The National Institutes of Health sent almost $130 million to the New Orleans area in fiscal year 2005, and the New Orleans Medical District -- which includes LSU Health Sciences Center, Tulane Medical Center, Xavier, Delgado and associated biotech companies -- provides almost 10,000 jobs in downtown New Orleans. Much of the region's economic viability is tied to clustered investment in health care delivery and medical/biotech research. Katrina devastated much of the bio-medical infrastructure, but much remains in place. More important, we now have an opportunity to rebuild a bigger, better and more forward-looking bio-medical district. All we have to do is invest in it.

"Lack of investment in New Orleans' biosciences base threatens to kill the goose that lays the golden egg," says Kurt Weigle, executive director of the Downtown Development District. The DDD has joined virtually every major player in the region to support a plan dubbed the New Orleans Regional Biosciences Initiative (NORBI). Based on an economic strategy that includes a vision of future biosciences growth, NORBI aims to build a globally competitive "innovation economy" for the region by building on its existing institutions. The benefits include conducting globally competitive biomedical research here, attracting private investment and jobs as a result of that research, and anchoring a vibrant community near the heart of downtown.

So what needs to happen to make that a reality?

Step One is retaining the VA Hospital in downtown New Orleans. That is the lynchpin. Without the VA -- and the huge investment of federal (read: new) dollars in downtown New Orleans -- we can kiss a huge swath of land and billions in economic impact goodbye. The good news is, the VA wants to stay here and the money is already in place to make that happen. The VA's proposed state-of-the-art facility will bring between $650 million and $1 billion in capital investment and an annual economic impact of at least $500 million. Even better, the VA wants to partner with LSUHSC in a joint teaching facility, which would increase capital investment to $2 billion -- and an annual economic impact of $1.26 billion.

The bad news, of course, is that Louisiana politics threaten to muck it all up. Some see this as a move to rebuild the state's Charity Hospital System. Others don't want to see LSU get all that money. Parochial and political agendas are always the death of progress in Louisiana. This time, we can't afford to let that happen. Lawmakers must support -- and fund -- the LSU/VA partnership. It already has the support of parish leaders throughout southeast Louisiana, including the Regional Planning Commission. The end result will be a teaching and research campus that serves not only the uninsured but also those with money and insurance who want first-class medical care.

Step Two is assembling a proposed 60-acre tract of land bounded by South Claiborne Avenue, Canal Street, South Rocheblave Street and Tulane Avenue for the LSU/VA campus. Mayor Ray Nagin has endorsed this idea and had pledged to work with the state to make it happen. Best of all, the VA will reimburse the city and state for much if not all of the costs of expropriating the land. Additional land banking will be necessary to develop ancillary bio-medical complexes as part of the "cluster" concept. Ultimately, the district will extend across parts of Tulane Avenue and all the way to South Broad Street, revitalizing an entire area that has been in a state of decline and/or neglect for decades.

If lawmakers fail to appropriate adequate sums for this project, and if our congressmen and senators don't unite behind this initiative, the VA Hospital may leave New Orleans. That would be a devastating loss, as the hospital draws from across the Gulf Coast. Moreover, the VA Hospital is essential to the success of the medical district. We therefore urge state lawmakers and our elected representatives in Washington to put politics and parochial interests aside and devote all their energies toward keeping the VA Hospital in New Orleans -- and to support the LSU/VA-anchored New Orleans Regional Biosciences Initiative.

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