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With a yellow excavator machine behind them and white helmets over their heads, leaders of Catholic Health System, the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo and other dignitaries Wednesday dug their shovels into one of the last major patches of undeveloped land downtown for what will become Catholic Health’s new corporate headquarters and training center.

Located at the foot of the Kensington Expressway on a large grassy field bordered by Oak, Elm and Genesee streets, officials said the building will become the gateway to downtown.

The $46 million project includes a 140,000-square-foot, six-story building, with an attached parking garage, to house about 700 employees from throughout Western New York when completed next year. Those will include employees of the hospital system, as well as the administrative staff of Catholic Medical Partners, the independent practice group for 900 doctors, which will move to the building in 2015.

Catholic Health hopes to save about $1 million per year for the next 25 years by consolidating its operations from 180,000 square feet across eight facilities. Besides the administrative offices of the area’s second-largest hospital system, the environmentally friendly facility will include a regional training center for health care and related education for both Catholic Health and the broader community.

“Catholic Health will be able to provide training, skills, certification and recertification to as many as 15,000 of the region’s health care workers annually,” CEO Joseph McDonald said at the groundbreaking. “It will enable them to provide the kind of care that the current delivery system requires. It will also provide the training required for future health care delivery.”

The City of Buffalo contributed nearly $4 million to the project, using state funds allocated to the city through Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes The building will be developed by Uniland Development Co., which has owned the property for decades but previously said it hadn’t found the right project for such a key parcel.

“This is a very complex project. It took a lot of people to bring ideas and energy and effort to make this opportunity become real,” McDonald said. “We had the opportunity to build this throughout the region, but it was one of our primary drivers to be part of the downtown community. We believe that’s where Catholic Health System started, with Sisters of Charity Hospital.”

Harkening back to the 1998 merger that formed the hospital system, Catholic Health Board Chairman Dennis J. Dombek noted that the goal of the merger was to create an integrated system that would deliver extensive care but do business in a new way. “We realized that the old way of doing business was no longer acceptable, and we had to change the delivery of health care... That’s exactly what we’ve done,” he said. Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown said he appreciated Catholic Health’s commitment to the city. “The fact that you chose the city of Buffalo means a great deal," Brown said.

email: jepstein@buffnews.com