Niagara County Community College’s Culinary Institute in Niagara Falls. (News file photo)

It was supposed to sprinkle ingredients of a revival for downtown Niagara Falls. But some current and retired faculty look at the $26 million Culinary Institute that opened in 2012 as a botched recipe by Niagara County Community College.

College President James P. Klyczek and the college recently faced a federal lawsuit that accused him of misappropriating money to help pay for equipment inside the new center. In addition, a federal probe of contracts for the project and the release of emails suggest Klyczek tried to influence the bid process for the institute. And the center hasn't been as attractive to students as Klyczek had envisioned: Enrollment fell to 378 students last fall, well short of the goal of 1,000 students.

The college's board of trustees has hired a law firm to investigate allegations related to the Culinary Institute and a public relations firm to help handle the negative publicity. The board scheduled a special meeting Thursday evening to "determine the status of the president."

[Related: Feds supboena NCCC culinary center contract info]

Board members remain committed to the Culinary Institute, said Barbara Pierce of Tipping Point Communications, the firm hired to speak on behalf of the board.

"Over the past five years, the Niagara Falls Culinary Institute has established itself as an important part of NCCC and its course offerings. There is no question that the college and its Board of Trustees is fully committed to NFCI and its growth and success," she said.

Klyczek pushed for years to establish a culinary and hospitality school in Niagara Falls, about 12 miles from the main NCCC campus in Sanborn. He saw the project as a way to attract new students and burnish the college's reputation in Niagara County and across the state. City and county officials also lauded the project for bringing new life to the former Rainbow Centre Mall, a long-vacant hulk in the middle of downtown.

Emails suggest NCCC president tried to influence bid process

But some in the faculty were skeptical from the beginning of the program's enrollment potential. They said Klyczek's focus on building the institute in Niagara Falls came at the expense of the college's primary academic offerings in Sanborn.

Now, rather than boosting the college, the institute risks detracting from it.

Klyczek allegedly used money set aside for other academic programs to buy items for a pastry production laboratory located inside the Culinary Institute, according to the lawsuit filed by Eunice Bellinger, former vice president of academic affairs at NCCC.

Through a college-related but separate non-profit entity called the College Association of Niagara County Community College, the pastry production laboratory had a contract to provide baked goods for the Seneca Casino.

The College Association also operates a fine dining restaurant, Savor, as well as a deli and pastry shop inside the Culinary Institute. Tax forms filed with the IRS show that the College Association lost $953,740 on its Culinary Institute operations between 2012 and 2014.

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Lawsuit resolved

Bellinger took her concerns to Dona S. Bulluck, associate counsel with the State University of New York. Klyczek then fired Bellinger in June 2015.

Bellinger, now president of a community college in West Virginia, filed a federal lawsuit, saying Klyczek and NCCC retaliated against her for "speaking out on matters of public concern."

She sought $3 million in damages.

Lawyers for Klyczek and the college denied Bellinger's claims, and the case ultimately was settled Feb. 9 in mediation. Bellinger did not return a phone call and an email seeking comment.

Her lawyer, Kevin P. Wicka, said terms of the settlement would not be disclosed.

"My client is pleased that the matter is resolved," he said.

A spokeswoman for SUNY acknowledged Bulluck had communicated with Bellinger, but Bellinger did not file a formal complaint with SUNY.

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'Draining money'

The spokeswoman, Holly Liapis, also said that SUNY officials are "closely monitoring" an investigation by the U.S. Attorney's Office into allegations of bid rigging associated with the Culinary Institute.

In a telephone interview, Klyczek declined to comment on the federal lawsuit or on the emails related to the bidding process.

[Related: New NCCC Culinary Institute expected to breathe life into former Rainbow Centre mall]  

The federal court case against Klyczek bolstered suspicions among faculty that the president tried to prop up the college's culinary program in part by neglecting academic departments in Sanborn.

"It's pretty obvious it's running at a deficit, and it's draining money from here," said Elizabeth Sachs, a professor of English at the college.

The size of the English department shrunk from 21 faculty members when Sachs started at the college 17 years ago to 10 now. A center that helps students improve their writing skills went from three mentors to one and now has limited hours, Sachs said.

Faculty members were told years ago that the institute would need about 1,000 students to break even, and Klyczek has said the college would meet that number within three to five years of its opening.

But after peaking at 520 students in 2014, enrollment at the Culinary Institute has slipped the past two years. Last  year,  378 students took classes primarily at the Niagara Falls facility, which the State University of New York designated as a branch campus last June.

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Strained faculty relations

In a telephone interview, Klyczek declined to comment on the federal lawsuit or on the emails related to the bidding process. He also said he was not aware of exactly what the board will be discussing in regards to his status at the college. But he did discuss the lower-than-anticipated enrollment at the Culinary Institute and the financial losses to the College Association.

Klyczek attributed the low student numbers to a combination of factors, including concern about student debt, a lack of true student housing in downtown Niagara Falls and a favorable economy that traditionally works against community college enrollments. But he said the projections for 1,000 students in Niagara Falls were not unrealistic. "The 1,000 was our limitation on what we can hold there," he said. "It was a calculation of the number of seats, the number of labs and utilization of the facility to its fullest."

But he said the college did not need 1,000 students to break even. Klyczek also acknowledged that the retail entities run by the College Association haven't fared as well as expected. Those entities, he said, turned out to be more expensive to operate than true retail outlets, because they include untrained students who are learning as they go. Downtown Niagara Falls also hasn't grown as quickly as many people had anticipated. "We need other development just like everyone else," said Klyczek. "We will benefit by even further development."

Klyczek also said the College Association has been "overly conservative" in taking on all costs, even when some of the expenses could rightly be attributed to the academic side of the Culinary Institute. The association had projected losses for the first two to four years and had prepared for the losses by saving money prior to the opening of the culinary center.

Klyczek also didn't dispute that the culinary program was a priority of the institution and had its detractors.

"No matter what we develop you're going to have cheerleaders and you're going to have non-supporters. That's only natural, because if one program is getting the money, some other program isn't," he said.

At the same time expansion of culinary arts and hospitality was being proposed, he added, other programs that did not attract many students were on the chopping block. "That aggravated people, obviously," said Klyczek. "It aggravated faculty."

Federal investigators last week subpoenaed information from the college about the awarding of construction, design and legal services contracts for the Culinary Institute, and the college's board of trustees hired a law firm to examine whether the bidding was tainted.

A series of emails from 2010 and 2011 also surfaced last week suggesting that Klyczek tried to influence the bid process on contracts for the Culinary Institute, which houses programs in culinary arts, hospitality, tourism and wine and beverage research.

The emails suggested that Klyczek changed the bid process midstream for legal work on the culinary project and attempted to handpick a preferred contractor for engineering and design work.

Klyczek started at NCCC in 2001 and has wrangled for years with faculty members, who describe his leadership style as autocratic, manipulative and exclusive.  In 2005, the Faculty Senate passed a vote of no confidence in him.

Despite the tensions, the board of trustees signed Klyczek to multiple contracts.

Faculty concerns about Klyczek have been dismissed by trustees for years, said Anthony Gullo, a former faculty union president who won a SUNY Chancellor's Award for his teaching of social sciences. Gullo retired in 2006, but is still active at the college.

"The board of trustees just rubber-stamped everything he did," he said.

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