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AMHERST SHIFTS GEARS AGAIN ON MUSEUM-RINK NEW PLAN EYES TOWN OPERATIONS, INSTEAD OF SKATING, IN AVIATION STRUCTURE

An aviation museum that was supposed to be converted into an ice rink may wind up housing town engineering offices and trucks under a proposal made Monday to the Amherst Town Board.

Councilman Harold J. Collier unveiled a plan that would affect five town departments and transform the $1.9 million building at Millersport Highway and Smith Road into a public works facility.

The 35,000-square-foot structure was built as a regional aviation museum. But the board last February scrapped the project in favor of making the building the town's third indoor ice rink and recreation center at an additional cost of about $2 million.

Under Collier's proposal, the building instead would become the new home of the Amherst Engineering Department -- now located at 1100 N. Forest Road -- with some storage space for the town Highway Department, located at 1042 N. Forest. Collier said the Engineering Department's move from North Forest Road would ease "major space and parking crunches" at Town Hall on Main Street in the Village of Williamsville by:

Permitting the town Building Department to move into the vacated Engineering Department offices at 1100 N. Forest, freeing up large amounts of office and parking space at Town Hall.

Providing room in Town Hall for an expansion of the cramped quarters of the town Planning Department.

At the same time, the Highway Department would receive additional storage space for vehicles and equipment in the nearby Engineering Department garage and in the Millersport Highway building, Collier said.

Residents will be asked what they think -- recreation center or public-works facility -- at a public hearing, officials said Monday. The hearing will probably be held in February when various studies are complete, they said.

Collier's proposal received mixed reviews from his colleagues, with some questioning methods of financing and the ramifications of again switching gears on the use of the cavernous building at Millersport and Smith.

"The public has got to go out of its mind" with the "fickleness" displayed by the board on the project, said Councilman E. Thomas Jones.

In less than a year, "we've gone from a museum to an ice rink to a garage for garbage trucks," making the board's "credibility" suspect, Jones told Collier.

"Maybe a rink isn't the way to go. These are (fiscally) unstable times, and it may be prudent to put a halt on all capital projects at this time," Jones said.

Collier's plan "allows use of the building while not paying the additional $2 million in conversion costs," Councilman Lawrence Southwick Jr. noted.

Because the project involves the Engineering Department, ample surplus sewer-district funds rather than money from the general fund could be utilized for the $625,000 cost of conversion, Collier said.

"There are going to be some unhappy campers here, no question, but is the rink the priority, or are (future) budgets we can live with the priority?" Collier asked the board.

Collier said his proposal was prompted by space and parking problems at Town Hall, the town's increasing debt, cutbacks in the state's budget and dismal economic forecasts for the next few years.

If the public is still willing to pay the tab for a third ice rink, plenty of town-owned land exists at Millersport and Smith, Collier said. "We can develop a facility that fits the need instead of converting a building into something it wasn't meant to be," he said.

Supervisor Daniel J. Ward, the board's only Democrat, suggested that Collier's proposal is part of a continuing attempt by Republicans to bypass the supervisor's office on major policy decisions.

Four of the five departments that would be affected -- Engineering, Building, Planning and Recreation -- fall under the supervisor's executive branch of town government.

"I am aware of a general need for more space" in Town Hall, "but there's been no recommendation from my office," Ward told councilmen.

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