NEW YORK — Officials broke ground Thursday on a much-delayed 22-acre development project that will bring the NBA’s New Jersey Nets to Brooklyn.

As protesters chanted and staged a mock funeral for the “soul” of Brooklyn, supporters enjoyed a lavish spread catered by developer Bruce Ratner.

“Today is a great day for Brooklyn and for the soul of Brooklyn, which is very much alive,” said Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz.

Markowitz joined Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Gov. David Paterson and hundreds of others at a ceremonial groundbreaking for the $4.9 billion project, which has been delayed by lawsuits filed by residents fighting the use of eminent domain.

The 18,000-seat arena is set to open in 2012, and construction will begin on the first of 16 residential and office buildings in 2011.

Officials spoke inside a tent at the groundbreaking site, while the protesters shouted and blew whistles outside.

“What they’re going to build is a money-losing arena, maybe one or two towers and acres and acres of parking,” said Daniel Goldstein, founder of the group Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, speaking at the groundbreaking, acknowledged the displeasure of some community members but said he supported the project because it will provide jobs and contracts for minority business owners.

Supporters say the project is a chance for Brooklyn to get a professional sports franchise for the first time since the Dodgers departed for Los Angeles after the 1957 season.

“Sadly, we lost our beloved bums, the Dodgers, 53 years ago,” Markowitz said.

But at 7-57, the current Nets are on a pace to set an NBA record for fewest games won in an 82-game season, to which Bloomberg alluded.

“This really is such a huge win for the Nets,” Bloomberg said. “It’s a shame that it doesn’t count in the standings.”