Three years ago Erie County Executive Joel Giambra put a vision before this community that we should consolidate our three aging community college campuses into a great single state-of-the-art institution downtown.
It was a long overdue response to an obvious problem -- the decades-old three-campus system is inefficient, costly, isolated and based on a projected 2 million county population that never materialized. As a former ECC trustee, I and many others in this community agreed with this plan.
And when the consultants reviewed the cost of keeping the status quo vs. building one new campus around the historic downtown post office, the comparison favored building an ECC campus in the region's largest municipality, the largest school district and the largest employment base in Erie County -- the City of Buffalo.
But now a good plan is in danger. The resistance to change at ECC is being led by a few individuals who prosper with the status quo. One of them routinely says that a downtown campus will never work because it will be "an inner-city campus," apparently implying that anything associated with the inner city simply cannot be good. This person wants to put dormitories and ice hockey rinks across from Ralph Wilson Stadium.
His plan would be humorous if it were not such an alarming display of misplaced focus. Further, describing ECC downtown as strictly inner city exemplifies the "us-vs.-them" mentality that has served as a major hurdle to this area's prosperity.
Meanwhile, another opponent of consolidation misstates money issues. He says that ECC will lose $30 million a year if there is consolidation. He says it over and over again, hoping that if he repeats this mischaracterization often enough, maybe no one will ask how that number was arrived at. Well, let's look at that figure and see if it is believable.
A few months ago the ECC faculty, who don't want to give up the extra administrative salaries that come with a three-campus system, had their students fill out a questionnaire in the classroom. Would students attend ECC if it were consolidated into the current campus downtown; would they transfer to another college, or just not attend college at all?
Not surprisingly, about 60 percent of the students said they did not want to finish their studies at a downtown campus that currently consists of a single academic building. The faculty did not tell these students that not a single current student would be affected by consolidation. The students were not given the option of choosing a modern expanded downtown campus with free parking. And thus the faculty and the administration arrived at the "fact" that ECC would lose $30 million a year because of consolidation.
This was not an unbiased study or poll. It was a PR tool used for one purpose: to protect the status quo. An unbiased study found that the most important issues for today's ECC students were cost and quality.
The fact is, opponents of a new modern campus downtown have never addressed the financial burden of the current three-campus system. An independent study found that ECC spends $3.2 million a year on duplicate and triplicate operating costs because we have three campuses. An additional $2.5 million a year will have to be spent in the future to provide parity between the campuses if we continue to be the only community college in New York State with three main campuses.
Why should this community spend $5.7 million a year on these avoidable costs, rather than using our resources to create a new central campus? Answer: we shouldn't.
Consolidation makes sense. Students today won't experience the benefits, but students for the next generation can -- but only if we prevent the lack of vision of a few repeat the mistakes of the past. Let's not put ECC Downtown in the Buffalo Hall of Shame of Great Missed Opportunities.
Joseph DiVincenzo is a former chairman of the Board of Trustees of Erie Community College.