It took more than three years – and a bit of controversy – to reach a decision, but Erie County and its community college have finally decided where to locate a new $30 million academic building.
And it’s going right where the college wanted it all along: its North Campus in Amherst.
Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz and ECC President Jack F. Quinn Jr. on Tuesday announced plans for a new Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics building on the North Campus, based on a much-anticipated recommendation from an academic consultant.
The issue of a new building – first raised more than three years ago – stirred up controversy over whether it should be located in Amherst or on the college’s downtown campus, prompting the county and college to hire a Glens Falls-based consultant to study the college’s space needs.
The consultant, JMZ Architects and Planners, has come back with a recommendation to build on the North Campus, based on several factors, including the availability of land and parking; the need to improve the condition of the aging campus; and the fact that North has the highest enrollment of the three ECC campuses.
“This should put to bed the question, ‘Where’s the best location,’ ” Poloncarz said Tuesday.
Groundbreaking is scheduled for 2014.
Further details of the JMZ report are expected to be discussed with the college’s board of trustees today and the Erie County Legislature on Thursday. Legislator Thomas A. Loughran, D-Amherst, one of those on hand for the announcement, said he doesn’t expect the project to encounter any problems in a majority of the Legislature.
“We’re going to have a lot more discussion with our trustees and the Legislature the next couple of months to get us through the nooks and crannies and the details – the devil’s always in the details,” Quinn said. “But we think we got a great start to this discussion.”
It’s certainly not the end of the discussion.
In fact, not everyone was happy with Tuesday’s news, including former Erie County Executive Joel A. Giambra.
Giambra – who spent his tenure in office determined to merge ECC’s three campuses downtown – has been a chief critic of building on the North Campus and continues to threaten a lawsuit to stop construction.
“I think this is potentially one of the worst public policy decisions since the decision to put the University at Buffalo on a swamp,” said Giambra, referring to the UB Amherst campus.
“I want to see the report,” Giambra said Tuesday. “I’ve assembled a legal team and once we digest that report we will determine whether there’s a basis for a lawsuit.”
The college first raised the issue of a new building around 2010 and set its sights on the North Campus at Main Street and Youngs Road, which consists of eight buildings constructed in phases between 1953 and the late 1960s.
The college hoped updating the unattractive North Campus would help stem the number of Erie County residents going across the border to attend school at Niagara County Community College.
While the project received $30 million in funding – half coming from the state, the rest from the college and county – questions were raised by some city lawmakers and a group called “Young Citizens for ECC” about whether the new building belonged downtown near the burgeoning Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.
The discussion even resurrected Giambra’s old issue of consolidating ECC downtown.
ECC and then-County Executive Chris Collins quickly quashed any idea of consolidation in support of the three-campus approach, and at one point, announced an architect to begin designing the building on the North Campus.
But when Poloncarz took office, he wanted to take a step back and get a better idea of what the college needed. The county and college hired the consulting firm last year.
“I’ve always said I don’t believe the county should be investing money in a new building unless we know the location for it and the programs to be put in it,” Poloncarz said Tuesday.
“We shouldn’t be spending $30 million – the vast majority of it coming from the people – without a plan,” the county executive said. “So now we have a plan. This is where the building is going to be.”
The announcement was made Tuesday morning on the North Campus overlooking a vacant parcel along Youngs Road slated for the construction.
The addition of the new Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – or STEM – building would create a more traditional campus quad that will serve as the heart of the North Campus.
Bids will go out for a new architect.
The consultant recommends using the building to house such programs as biology, biomanufacturing, chemistry, engineering science, medical lab technology, nursing and physics.
Quinn and Poloncarz, however, emphasized that the building also will be used for courses in advanced manufacturing – teaching students the skills needed for today’s more-advanced factory work.
The two pointed out that ECC will continue to provide its advanced manufacturing degree program on the North Campus, but offer a shorter certificate program at the training center the Regional Economic Development Council is proposing in Buffalo.
“This city-based program will supplement what we will be doing here on the North Campus in the STEM building, thereby creating a one-two punch for workforce development for all of Western New York,” Poloncarz said.