A long-awaited $30 million science building that opened in January on the North Campus of Erie Community College is the most expensive single construction project in the history of the college and the first new freestanding building on the Amherst campus in decades.
Maybe now the wisecracks will stop about the campus looking like a glorified high school.
The project is winning straight-A's from students and faculty. It includes brand new equipment in all of the laboratories and the latest technology in classrooms. The 57,000-square-foot building is airy and bright, with wide corridors, plenty of natural light and areas for students to sit alone or in groups to study. It has two floors with 13 science laboratories, eight classrooms and offices for nearly 50 instructors.
Its Jan. 16 opening comes more than a decade after Erie County officials first announced plans for the project, which was hotly contested by critics who preferred consolidating programs at the downtown campus and considered a new building in the suburbs wasteful spending.
The project prompted a 2014 lawsuit in state Supreme Court that ultimately was dismissed. One of the plaintiffs in that case, former Erie County Executive Joel A. Giambra, insists the building was a big mistake and will do little to help attract new students, as some ECC officials had expected.
"I'm sure it's a handsome building. I'm sure it's nice, new and modern. But I don't think it's going to help the overall structural problems at ECC," said Giambra.
Some of the rationale for building a new science facility at the Amherst campus involved attracting a greater portion of Erie County students who were choosing to attend Niagara County Community College because they preferred the facilities there. But Giambra said both colleges are struggling due to shrinking population in the region, and they should be joining forces instead of constructing new buildings to compete with each other.
ECC's struggles with enrollment losses and budget deficits – and its habit of raising tuition and dipping into reserves to balance budgets – caught the attention of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education accreditors, who recently warned college officials to fix the financial problems or face the possibility of the college's accreditation being revoked.
ECC President Dan Hocoy, who started last July, said the college already is on its way to better fiscal stability, including a projected budget surplus of $3.5 million at the end of 2017-18 that will be returned to the college's reserve fund.
Hocoy was not at ECC for any of the back and forth over whether a new academic building should be constructed at North. But he said he's pleased by the results and grateful for the efforts of those who made sure the project came to fruition.
"It helps to re-establish the school as being relevant for the 21st century and some of the innovative new programs that are developing," he said. "So far I've heard nothing but great feedback. It's created a lot of buzz and excitement about the college."
Danka Dragic of Cheektowaga sat inside one of the hallway nooks on the first floor of the new building, with her laptop flipped open. She was listening to an online course through a pair of earbuds, while her friend Iris Huss sat across the table studying.
Dragic said most of the buildings at ECC weren't conducive to serious studying, so she and Huss often drove to the University at Buffalo to do their work. But the new building has changed their routine. "It feels more like college," said Dragic, a second-year health sciences student. "I feel more like I want to do work here."
"It's comfortable and it's quiet. You can focus," added Huss, who is studying social sciences.
The ample seating and wide open spaces are in stark contrast to the narrow corridors lined with locker stalls found in the older buildings on campus. Students often sat on the floor as they waited for instructors to arrive and open the classroom door.
"This definitely feels more mature," said Robin Hartloff of Buffalo, a first-year geosciences student who was finishing work for an English class at a small table in the main lobby of the new building. "This is much nicer. I definitely like the feel of it. There's a lot of places to sit and do work."
The building houses the departments of biology, chemistry, engineering sciences and physics and is often referred to as the STEM building. STEM is short for science, technology, engineering and math. While the math department is located elsewhere on campus, a handful of math courses are taught in the STEM building. College officials are trying to find a sponsor who will pay for naming rights on the building.
One of the biggest upgrades from the old science halls is the amount of laboratory space. The biology department had just two labs and now has five, including its own microbiology laboratory. The department can offer more sections of its most popular courses, as well as enhanced courses such as botany, zoology and genetics it could not previously accommodate on the North Campus, said Thomas Franco, associate professor and department chairman.
New equipment in the labs replaces equipment that in some cases dated back to the 1960s and was considered obsolete by today's industry standards.
"This definitely puts us on level with industry, with state-of-the-art equipment that our students deserve to use," said Joanne Colmerauer, dean of liberal arts and sciences at ECC.
Administrators and faculty said the only downside of the new building is how much it highlights the need for improvements to other parts of the campus, which for years has been ridiculed as shabby and outdated.
"We're going to have to refresh some of the other buildings around there because people are saying it kind of stands out as this gem, and then you have the rest of North Campus. Right now it seems really incongruous," said Hocoy.