Erie Community College expansion fight centers on sprawl

Feb 16, 2012

A fight over a small item in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s budget proposal has been building for months.

At issue is $15 million in a $130 billion budget. But for two opposing factions in Buffalo, it’s symbolic of the city’s path forward.

To sprawl or not to sprawl? 

That’s the question. And today’s the last day Governor Cuomo can change his mind.

Suburbs or downtown?

They say if you build it, they will come. But the question for Erie County Community College (ECC) is ‘where?’

ECC wants a new building at its north campus in the suburb of Williamsville. Cuomo’s budget, passed as is, would deliver $15 million towards the building’s estimated $30 million price tag.

But the project would come at the expense of ECC’s downtown Buffalo campus, according to a growing number of opponents who are trying to convince the governor to change his mind at the last minute.

“There might be a little spark of hope that we can get that building in downtown Buffalo or at least open up the conversation again before the shovel is in the ground,” says Darius Pridgin, a Buffalo councilman who helped pass a resolution against the north campus expansion.

The new suburban facility would be a continuation of 60 years of sprawl that’s left Buffalo’s urban core a crumbling shell, says Greg Conley, a co-chair of Young Citizens for ECC.

The group contends Cuomo himself has called for an end to that trend through a plan from his Western New York Regional Council.

“You’re building something that does not follow your strategic development plan for western New York, which pushes for smart growth,” Conley says of Cuomo.

“No space” downtown

Locating the building near the bustling Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, which has recently brought jobs, construction and hope downtown, has emerged as the consensus alternative among critics of ECC’s current plan.

Since the new building will house some of ECC’s health science programs, Conley says, it should be close to the medical campus downtown.

“We should be aligning our health science education to the internships and job opportunities that await them at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, [which] will be the major employer for health science - plain and simple,” Conley says.

While the structure was initially dubbed the “Health Sciences Center for Excellence,” ECC President Jack Quinn now characterizes the building as badly-needed classroom space with modern facilities.

“It is not just a health sciences building. In fact, it’s far from that,”says Quinn, a former six-term Republican congressman from western New York. “Now, will we have some health sciences there? Sure we will.”

The Young Citizens for ECC claim Quinn re-branded the building once criticism of the plan sprouted.

“The [request for proposals] for the project specifically says ‘health science’ so if [President Quinn] is suggesting it’s not a health science building, we have the formal evidence that says otherwise,” Conley says. “I don’t know how [ECC] can submit an RFP that specifically calls it an ‘allied health science building’ and then somehow construct a building that’s not health science related.”

Even if ECC administrators wanted the building at its downtown campus, Quinn says it wouldn’t be physically possible.

“There’s no space at this campus right now. We’re landlocked,” he says.

But downtown Buffalo has an abundance of cheap land and abandoned lots, say the Young Citizens for ECC.

“There’s a lot of possibilities out there. But it’s a matter of going out and looking for it,” Conley says. “I think President Quinn [is resigned] to the idea that [ECC] can just say they’re landlocked and build on north or south [campus].” 

Purse strings held by a newcomer

Here’s why the geographic location matters to ECC: Each year hundreds of students in northern Erie County enroll in neighboring Niagara County Community College.

That costs Erie County taxpayers up to $4 million a year in what are known as “chargebacks.”

“We’re getting our clocks cleaned at ECC with chargebacks,” Quinn says.

Quinn thinks a new building in northern Erie will keep local students in county. But it remains to be seen if new Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz agrees. Ultimately, Poloncarz holds the purse strings for the ECC project.

Last year, Poloncarz’s predecessor Chris Collins promised to loan or grant ECC most of the other half of the building’s cost. Poloncarz essentially ran on an anti-Collins platform last fall and owes his election to a high turnout from urban areas.

Currently, Poloncarz won’t say where he stands on the issue.

A call to the new county executive was returned by spokesman Peter Anderson with: “No comment.”

Yet if funding from the state or county collapses and there’s a continued push to build downtown, would ECC President Jack Quinn consider the idea?

“At this point, no,” he says.

Despite uncertainty surrounding the building’s financing, there seems to be resignation that ECC will build at its suburban north campus no matter what.

“Unfortunately I think the decision makers have made up their minds, at least locally, that they’re going to locate that building in the suburbs,” says Councilman Darius Pridgin.

Friday 2/17 UPDATE:

Governor Cuomo did not announce any changes by the end of Thursday regarding his budget proposal’s $15 million allocation for ECC’s new suburban building. Now wrangling in the legislature begins, with the Senate and Assembly offering their budget suggestions ahead of the April 1 budget deadline.