Top county Democrats sent a sharp warning to the Giambra administration Thursday: Keep developers away from Erie Community College.
Legislators said they fear that the college -- particularly the North Campus in Amherst -- will fall prey to the demands of developers who want the college's valuable acres of vacant, well-situated land.
"I have worked too hard on these campuses to see them sold off to the highest bidder," said Legislature Chairman Charles M. Swanick, D-Kenmore.
Swanick's angry words came after the Legislature's Community Enrichment Committee disavowed a proposed study of the college being pushed by County Executive Joel A. Giambra. Giambra, a Republican, wants to spend $383,000 on a full-scale review of all aspects of the college.
Legislators on the committee voted unanimously to send the proposal back to ECC, telling college officials that they can do what they want with it -- but that the Legislature will not be responsible for the result. Money for the study is in ECC's budget, and it will go forward without Legislature approval, college officials said.
Friction on the issue has centered around one key point: whether the sale or lease of college land will be an outcome of the study.
Giambra and college officials maintain that all options -- including sale and leasing -- must be on the table during the 12-month study.
ECC officials held to that position Thursday during heated questioning by legislators, though they maintained that there is no desire by ECC's administration and board of trustees to close any campuses. The college has prime undeveloped land at two of its three campuses, ECC North in Amherst and ECC South in Orchard Park. The ECC City Campus is located downtown.
"It is an open item, but it is not a done item," said board Chairwoman Patricia Krzesinski. "The board of trustees at Erie Community College is not interested in closing any campuses. It makes me sick to see the PR we're getting on this. It taints the whole process."
Giambra administration officials said more likely options could include arrangements to sell or lease space to local businesses that want to provide services to students -- a coffee shop or bank, for example -- or partnerships with business that can provide internship opportunities for students.
But legislators said the undeveloped land -- particularly at ECC North -- is a huge bait to developers.
"If you know the developers and Realtors in Amherst, you know that this is prime land," said Swanick. "Once you open the door to development, you are opening up the college for sale."
Other legislators expressed concerns about the new $1 million dental lab that the college has been mandated to build. That lab, which is designated for ECC North, has been delayed several times, while other building projects have gone forward. Most notably, ECC officials recently requested $450,000 for new bleachers at ECC South, where a football program will begin in the fall. The Legislature approved that funding request.
ECC officials said the college will wait for completion of the upcoming study reviewing the college's facilities before making a decision on building the dental lab.