Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, Calif., broke ground on a key piece of its strategic plan on Saturday, Dec. 8, 2007.

The Health Education Center, which will be nearly 180,000 square feet, will house the College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific and the three new colleges opening in 2009 – the College of Dental Medicine, the College of Optometry and the College of Podiatric Medicine. Construction is expected to be completed in summer 2009.

The university invited more than 100 guests to a groundbreaking ceremony and luncheon on Saturday. Dr. Benjamin L. Cohen, WesternU provost and chief operating officer, talked about “Creating a Vision and Building for the Future.”

WesternU began looking at its strategic plan four years ago, Cohen said. The university heeded the request of the Institute of Medicine to tear down the walls separating different health professions, he said. WesternU wants students from all disciplines to talk to each other and work together to help patients.

“We have a unique opportunity to make this vision possible,” Cohen said.

The buildings under construction and in development will help the university reach that goal. The first floor of the Health Education Center will have four auditoriums and faculty offices. The College of Optometry and COMP will be on the second floor. The College of Podiatric Medicine and the College of Dental Medicine will be on the third floor and research labs will be on the fourth floor.

Everyone has envisioned this project in their minds, but the groundbreaking ceremony symbolizes concrete efforts toward completing this goal, said Dr. Elizabeth Hoppe, founding dean of the College of Optometry.

WesternU had previously renovated existing buildings, but is in the process of designing and building four new facilities. The university has been amazingly creative in adapting existing buildings to fit the educational process, Hoppe said.

“To start from scratch with new buildings, we’re able to embody that philosophy and take it to the next level,” she said. “There are no compromises we have to make.”

The Health Education Center is one of four new buildings planned for the WesternU campus. Construction on the Veterinary Clinical Center began in August and is expected to be completed in early 2008. The Veterinary Instructional Pathology Center will be built by April, and the Patient Care Center is expected to open in summer 2009.

The plans and ideas at WesternU made an impression on visitors. Dr. Brian Scott, president of the California Dental Association, said he has talked with Dr. James Koelbl, founding dean of WesternU’s College of Dental Medicine, about his proposed curriculum. Koelbl is a good choice as dean because he knows the importance of dentists working together to benefit the profession, Scott said.

The biggest challenge facing dentistry today is access to dental health care, he said.

“That in part stems from the fact we are educating fewer dentists in this day and age,” Scott said. “This is a very positive step in the right direction.”

The weekend festivities began on Friday, Dec. 7 with a reception for city officials and other community members who made a positive impact on the construction project. The reception was held at Armstrong’s Gallery, 150 E. Third St., Pomona, and also served as a preview of the “George Ohr Rising: The Emergence of An American Master” exhibit. The exhibit opening on Saturday attracted about 900 guests, said gallery owner David Armstrong.

“We are both in the education business,” Armstrong said. “Ours is an appreciation of fine arts. Western University is in medical education. What we have tried to do here is create a cultural center for Southern California centered in Pomona.”