By Ron Leir
Roche USA, the Swiss-based pharmaceutical company that is marketing its 118-acre property straddling Nutley and Clifton, continues to seek a buyer for the site but has inked a tenant for part of the site.
Roche spokeswoman Darien Wilson said last week that the Tom Lyon, vice president of Roche Nutley (as the property is designated), has signed a “letter of intent” with Robert C. Garrett, president/ CEO of Hackensack University Health Network, for the leasing of one of Roche’s former research buildings for the operation of a medical school.
Terms of the lease remain to be negotiated, Wilson said.
At the same time, Wilson said, Roche — which last year paid $7.1 million in taxes to Nutley (supplemented by $2.7 million in special state transitional aid) — is “still in the process of identifying a buyer for the [entire] site.” Asked when Roche anticipated a sale, Wilson said: “We’re very close …. We expect to identify a new owner by middle of the year.”
Asked why the company was entering into an lease agreement for just a small part of its property (about 13 acres) before disposing of the whole site, Wilson acknowledged it could be considered an atypical approach, but that “all of the potential buyers were fully aware,” along with the Nutley- Clifton Joint Repurposing Committee, “that this was an opportunity that Roche wanted to pursue.”
Wilson said that talks with HackensackUHN “have been going on for a year and a half.” She added that the lease between the parties “would be assigned to whoever the new owner is.”
The new four-year medical school, according to a statement posted on the Hackensack University Medical School website, will be a joint venture by HackensackUHN and Seton Hall University and will be “the only private school of medicine currently in the state.”
The statement said the new facility would be an economic boost to the region by attracting other health-care related businesses and would “help curb the critical physician shortage that the state and the nation currently face. By 2020, it is estimated there will be a shortage of 2,500 physicians in the Garden State.”
Said Garrett: “New Jersey has long been known as a home to the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries, and it is imperative we continue to support our future workforce through a premier school of medicine.”
Seton Hall President A. Gabriel Esteban said the university plans to integrate its graduate programs in Physician Assistant, Athletic Training, Occupational and Physical Therapy, Speech-Language Pathology and Health Administration, doctoral program in Health Sciences and Health Law to the new partnership.
A joint statement by HackensackUHN and Seton Hall said the new venture “will allow us to create a world-class network of academic, research and clinical expertise to educate the next generation of physicians to advance our reputation as a health science leader.”
None of this will happen overnight, the partners acknowledge. The school’s first class isn’t expected through the doors until fall 2017, according to HackensackUHN’s statement.
“There are a lot of steps they’ll have to go through before the school can open,” Wilson said.
For one thing, the six-story, 432,000 square foot Building 123 – designated as the medical school site – “will have to be fitted out as if it were a medical school” before the operators can apply for accreditation, Wilson said.
The partners are applying to the N.J. Economic Development Authority (EDA) for assistance in this process and the EDA’s approval “is expected to be finalized in early 2015,” their statement said.
Interestingly, Wilson said, the Nutley/Clifton property lines goes right through the center of Building 123 so the partners may have to seek local zoning and/or building approvals from both communities as they prepare to reshape the building to their needs.
Built in 1994, Building 123 is outfitted with a six-story atrium and roof-top solar panels, a 130-seat auditorium/conference rooms, tele-presence and video conference rooms, chemistry and biology labs and other research-related facilities, according to the Roche website.
The partners have signed a memorandum of understanding to create the medical school. Still to come is a formal agreement spelling out terms of the partnership.
County and local officials hailed the news as a big step forward for the region.
Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr. said the new venture “will be a tremendous asset both to the health care industry in this state but also will replace the economic void created [the loss of 1,000 jobs] when Hoffman-LaRoche relocated from the area.” It will also “create new jobs, enhance the housing market and create limitless economic development opportunities for local businesses.”
And Nutley Public Affairs Commissioner Steven Rogers called the partnership “the culmination of a great team effort that will benefit our township for many years to come. … No doubt, this institution will attract people from all over the nation. This is the beginning of a great future for Nutley, in the area of jobs, economic growth and financial stability. We have a lot of work to do as we move forward. But this was a great way to start the new year.”