A Durham nonprofit manufacturer that is the country's largest employer of blind and visually impaired people has donated $12 million to help build a new Duke Eye Center.
With the gift from LC Industries, officials with the Duke University Health System have started planning the project and want to open it by 2013, assuming it wins approval from state regulators. They want to build an 85,000-square-foot facility next to the current eye center. It is expected to cost $55 million.
"Everything we do is about vision and everything they do is about vision," said Bill Hudson, the LC Industries president, who is also on the Duke Eye Center's advisory board. "It's a perfect marriage."
The Duke Eye Center treats more than 80,000 patients a year, and the volume of surgeries and clinic visits has increased 9 percent a year for the past five years. The aging population and diseases such as diabetes are fueling a surge in vision loss.
"There's clearly a need for this facility," said Monte Brown, vice president for administration at Duke Medicine, who oversees construction at the campus. "The original facility wasn't made for our current capacity."
Under the Certificate of Need laws, the state regulates major medical projects and expansions to help control health costs. Duke officials expect to submit the proposed project by early next year and could begin construction later in 2011.
LC Industries was started in 1936 by the Durham Lions Club to provide job opportunities for people who are legally blind. For years, it mostly made mattresses for the military, but began expanding in the 1970s.
The company employs about 800 people who make more than 2,000 products including mops, paper goods and military equipment. The company had $270 million in sales last year and now operates more than 30 supply centers on military bases across the country and six manufacturing facilities.
"Never in a million years would I have thought this company would make a $12 million donation," said Hudson, who has run the company for 40 years. "They do so much to help our people. This is a good thing."
About half of LC Industries workers are legally blind, and many local employees use the Duke Eye Center.
"With their research," Hudson said, "Duke will come up with some major cures for eye diseases."
LC Industries' sales increased about 10 percent last year, and Hudson expects similar growth in 2010, bolstered by its contracts with the military.
"We always worry about the defense budget, but so far, the military is still spending money," Hudson said. "That's good for us."
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