‘Health Care City’: Morris Cancer Center is another defining moment for New Brunswick

City, which has been actively seeking and promoting health care development, adds to its reputation

When the Jack & Sheryl Morris Cancer Center, a 12-story, 510,000-square-foot facility that represents a major expansion of the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, had its ceremonial groundbreaking Thursday, it marked another step in the institute’s place as one of the top cancer facilities in the country.

For longtime New Brunswick Mayor Jim Cahill, the event marked another major milestone moment in the city’s transformation into one of the leading health care locations in the country.

It didn’t happen by accident.

Cahill told the crowd of a few hundred dignitaries — including Gov. Phil Murphy — how the rise of the cancer center paralleled a goal he and city leaders established three decades ago.

“In the early 1990s, our nation experienced a recession,” he said. “A sluggish economy marked the period from 1991 to 1995. And the resulting adverse impact on real estate development threatened the momentum of our city’s revitalization efforts.

“In an effort to help drive our economy, we embarked then on a new initiative called ‘Health Care City.’ Already home to two terrific hospitals, we actively sought and promoted health care development.”

One of the results was the Cancer Institute, which opened in a small medical office on George Street. Expansion came quickly. The Cancer Institute moved into a 75,000-square-foot facility at its current site in 1996 and added a 143,000-square-foot expansion in 2004.

Cahill said the growth of the Institute helped other facilities grow and prosper, including the Child Health Institute, clinical academic buildings and tremendous growth of the city’s two medical centers, including the women and children’s pavilion and the care center for ambulatory services at St. Peter’s University Hospital, and the Bristol-Myers Squibb Children’s and Children’s Specialized hospitals at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital.

Cahill said the atmosphere cultivated the growth of academic health care, including Rutgers’ biomedical and health sciences, which offer education in medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, public health, nursing, biomedical research and other aspects of allied health careers.

“To be distinguished as a center of medicine, you need the winning combination of the best in patient care, research, human talent and academic excellence,” Cahill said.

Cahill feels New Brunswick has just that.

“Home to nationally recognized hospitals, global biotechnology and pharmaceutical corporations, internationally recognized medical research facilities and New Jersey’s premier academic medical center, New Brunswick checks all the boxes and has earned its reputation as the region’s health care city,” he said.

Cahill isn’t the only one who recognizes this.

Middlesex County Freeholder Director Ron Rios said the Jack & Sheryl Morris Cancer Center is consistent with Destination 2040, the county’s master economic roadmap.

“Not only does this project directly align with Middlesex County’s history of fostering and investing in innovation and collaboration, but we recognized from the onset immense benefits and opportunities this facility will bring to our community, creating a pathway for residents to receive advanced cancer treatment, new job opportunities and career paths in multiple disciplines,” he said.

Of course, the key is helping in the fight against cancer.

In New Jersey, there are more than 53,000 new cases of cancer diagnosed and 16,000 cancer deaths each year. The cancer pavilion will take the fight against cancer to the next level and will accommodate an additional 20,000 patient visits a year.

Jack Morris, whose philanthropic donation helped spur the $750 million project, said he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Or in any other place.

“We believe that we can build a world-class cancer center here — and we are going to build a world-class cancer center here,” he said. “And it will attract people from around the world.”

Morris said he hopes the center will help others see what he sees: That New Brunswick is a home for cancer care and research.

“I like to say we’re the best-kept secret,” he said. “We are finding cures for cancer, we are treating cancer, we are taking care of people — we’re just going to do it at a different level now. We’re going to do it at a level that’s done nationally.

“We’re going to attract doctors and others who want to come here and be part of this. It’s going to be a game changer.”

The Jack & Sheryl Morris Cancer Center, which is being developed in partnership with the New Brunswick Development Corp., is expected to be completed in 2024.