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START NEAR FOR COUNTY PUBLIC SAFETY CENTER

Passers-by still can make out the faded, stained lettering above the doorways of the sprawling brick warehouse -- "Buffalo Goodwill Industries" and "Grace Methodist Episcopal Church of All Nations."

But in a few weeks, the four-story brick building downtown will be rubble and dust. And by midsummer, construction crews will begin building a shining $33 million five-story facility that could dramatically change the way the region investigates and responds to crime.

County leaders expect the building eventually to be part of a larger Public Safety Campus with substantial economic draw for the city and ties to Erie Community College.

"Obviously we are very, very excited about this building," said Deputy County Executive Carl J. Calabrese. "This building plays a key role in our current and future homeland security plans."

Almost everything needed to respond to a crisis or assist in a crime scene investigation will eventually be housed in this new Public Safety Center in the block bounded by North and South Division streets, Elm Street and Michigan Avenue.

Instead of having resources scattered among multiple buildings and multiple city and county departments, the most crucial tools used for crime dispatch, analysis, evidence gathering and emergency communications will be housed here.

Erie County legislators last week approved a $413,000 contract to demolish the old Goodwill building.

Thursday, they listened as administrators and architects described plans for the new facility.

The total $33 million cost of the project, already approved, will come from both bond and tobacco settlement money. Cannon Design, a nationwide architectural firm, designed the 120,000-square-foot structure. It will be set back from a low concrete wall for security reasons and feature a modern exterior of glass and textured metal bands.

Its distinctive look is expected to make it a key landmark for those entering downtown from the I-190. And the building itself is designed to easily expand in the future, said Cannon Design principal Harry Warren.

"It's our responsibility to build a building that's appropriate for the community," Warren said.

The true character of the building, however, comes from what's inside:

The basement will house the Emergency Operations Center, the heart of all emergency operations if a natural or man-made disaster or crisis were to strike the area. This level will also include classroom and meeting space, building mechanics and some offices.

The first floor will feature a two-story glass lobby and an Evidence Collection Unit that will be used by both Buffalo and Erie County crime scene investigators to examine, store and even dry evidence. It will also include a photo lab and vehicle examination area.

The second floor is an administrative level for Erie County Central Police Services and Emergency Services.

A statewide fingerprint identification system that analyzes prints lifted from crime scenes for use by Western New York and even Canadian police will be housed here, along with computerized law enforcement records and information for use by the Buffalo Police and Erie County Sheriff's departments.

The third floor is dedicated to communications and would be the hub for ambulance dispatch and emergency 911 calls for the Buffalo police and fire departments and the sheriff's department. Other municipalities, such as Lackawanna, may also field their dispatch calls there.

The fourth and fifth floors of the building will contain a regional forensics laboratory, replacing the cramped facilities now located at Police Headquarters.

About three times larger than the current facility, the new crime lab is divided into four areas: chemistry, trace evidence, firearms analysis and DNA analysis, said Central Police Services Administrator David Sterner.

Construction of the DNA lab is crucial to getting the area's crime lab reaccredited and is the driving force to get construction under way, administrators said.

If all goes as planned, Sterner said, facilities in some parts of the building could be up and running as early as September of next year.

Legislators said they were extremely impressed with the building design and its potential economic impact on the neighborhood and the region.

County officials hope the new building, and plans for more construction, will bring more professional workers into this struggling section of downtown, improve surrounding residential property values along Michigan, and draw law enforcement-related business from federal, state and local agencies throughout a multistate region.

"This is just a great time for law enforcement in Erie County," said Legislator Edward Kuwik, D-Lackawanna. "Everyone in the country will be looking at us."

Construction of this building represents the first phase of a two-phase project to create a regional Public Safety Campus in Buffalo with educational ties to the Erie Community College.

The second phase would involve the construction of an adjacent regional police training center. But that would require the demolition of the Great Lakes Collection building and additional money that still has not been promised from the state or federal governments.

e-mail: stan@buffnews.com

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