BATON ROUGE, LA (AP) After nearly a decade on the drawing board and even more years on the health department’s wish list, construction of a new public health lab finally seemed on track, set to begin by June.
But disagreements over the site have delayed the groundbreaking and forced state officials to cancel construction bids, search for a new location and wait another six months before the two-year, nearly $20 million project begins.
“The stars were kind of lining up right for a change, and all of a sudden we have this issue. We’re trying not to get too frustrated,” said Charles Castille, undersecretary of the state Department of Health and Hospitals, which includes the Office of Public Health and its lab.
The current lab –– housed on a few floors of the State Office Building in downtown New Orleans –– is outdated and deteriorating, with equipment crammed into tiny spaces, insufficient security and rooms that have been flooded by an old, overloaded refrigerator.
The front line in Louisiana’s protection against bioterrorism and the state’s main testing site for human cases of the West Nile virus has a ventilation system that health officials have warned is so outdated an air-borne toxin could contaminate the entire building within minutes.
“I need to get the public health lab out of where it is now. They’re probably, in today’s day and age, in one of the worst locations they can be,” said Jerry Jones, director of state Facility Planning and Control, whose office oversees state construction projects.
The lab went up in the 1950s. Architectural plans for a new lab were drawn up in 1994, though Castille said the idea and struggle for funding has been around for 15 to 20 years.
The lab’s construction was delayed in 2002 by a debate about location. Last year, the state Bond Commission finally approved the lines of credit needed to finish up the preliminary site work and start construction on the lab that would nearly double the size of the current facility.
Castille said DHH expected to have a contract signed in the last quarter of the fiscal year that ended June 30 and have ground broken.
Contractors had submitted estimates for the project –– to be built at the University of New Orleans near the lakefront –– but before the contract was awarded, new UNO Chancellor Timothy Ryan asked state officials to reconsider the location for the lab.
“This was kind of a last minute glitch,” Castille said. “Dr. Ryan was willing to abide by the previous decision, but it was clear that he did not want it there.”
Ryan’s predecessor approved the UNO site, but Ryan said that’s the only area the university has to add new buildings, like on-campus housing or classrooms.
“That’s our campus. That is really the only space that we have for future growth in the university for facilities,” Ryan said.
Though the university offered an alternative site for the lab, Ryan said he believes the lab would be a better fit somewhere else, particularly near the LSU Health Sciences Center in New Orleans –– the area where it is now.
“Given the nature of the work they do, it doesn’t work with what we do,” he said of the public health lab. “It’s very compatible with the work that goes on with the research done at the health sciences center.”
DHH already rejected locating the lab downtown on land owned by the LSU medical system, however, because health officials do not want a lab with hazardous and sometimes toxic agents in the center of New Orleans’ business district.
Jones said his office was reviewing other possible sites, including one at Southern University of New Orleans and a site on DHH land on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, but he said he wasn’t “actively pursuing” the other location at UNO because the university was seeking rent money. Jones said he didn’t think DHH could afford or should have to pay rent to be on state property.
Ryan said the other entities pay rent for space in the university’s research park, where the alternative site is located. “That’s one of the ways we’re able to support the park,” he said.
Southern officials were interested in locating the lab at their research park without charging rent, according to Jones. SUNO officials asked for help with finishing a road on the campus, and Jones said the possibility of locating the public health lab at SUNO was promising.
“They see the value of having the public health lab at their research park, that it may lend some prestige and future opportunities for research,” Jones said.
The price of the project is only expected to rise because of the delay.
After a new site is chosen, the architect likely will have to revise the design of the lab to fit the new location. Then, there’s the bidding period for contracts. Castille estimates the site change set the construction back by about six months.
“Our hope is to have the construction contract awarded before the end of the calendar year, and hopefully have somebody digging a hole in the ground in December,” he said.