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Former Curtiss-Wright factory being turned into big laundry Facility will be shared by area hospitals

An old airplane engine plant on the East Side of Buffalo with dingy window panes and a cracked parking lot is getting a $22 million makeover as a hospital laundry -- a collaboration between a developer, hospitals, and an international service company that will add 200 people to the 4,000 local workers it already employs.

The laundry is projected to save $700,000 for 15 local hospitals and open in late summer with 40-foot-long washing "tunnel" machines from Germany.

For Centerstone Development, this project in one of Buffalo's poorest sections is just the first in a series of businesses expected to open at the eight acres of 60 Grider St.

"It's our plan to redevelop this entire site," said CEO John Giardino, before the start of a press conference Thursday. His company, enticed by savings available in the reduced-tax Empire Zone that includes Grider, bought what was once the Curtiss-Wright factory a year and a half ago. Already, he said, prospective tenants with an interest in warehousing and distribution have been in touch about the place, which has been vacant for nine years.

In anticipation of the laundry center's opening, 600 tons of steel and debris have been removed, leaving two giant gears once used for pressing steel. Giardino intends to landscape the 10-foot rounds into a front entrance as tribute to the origins of the 140,000-square-foot building with its new name: "Wright Place."

Sodexho Laundry Services, a division of the multinational Sodexho Alliance, intends to use the laundry project as the beginning of more prominent community work.

"This is going to be Sodexho's coming out party," said Emeka Okeani, president of the laundry division, who flew from Georgia for Thursday's announcement inside the chilly, empty factory space. "We have a commitment that Sodexho is here to stay."

His company, which now has a 15-year contract with Centerstone, has branches in 72 countries, a base office in Paris and 110,000 employees in North America.

One of Sodexho's missions, said Okeani, is to contribute. Buffalo's East Side with its vacant, burned out homes fits.

"Being part of the community is a business imperative," he said. "It's not just about money."

About two years ago, Sodhexo opened a Cleveland operation, with 180 jobs, similar to the one planned for Buffalo.

While some of the company's 4,000 local staffers do such things as laundry, food preparation, X-ray repair and janitorial work for colleges, hospitals, corporations and even M&T bank, another 500 work in offices in Williamsville in the corporation's financial headquarters for North America, he said.

"We had been quiet," Okeani said. "Now we want to make a big splash."

Hospitals have also seized the project as an opportunity to save an estimated $700,000 on what is now $10 million worth of 25 million pounds of towels and sheets washed each year.

To make this happen, 15 local hospitals joined forces about two years ago to create a money-saving buying group called the WNY Purchasing Alliance. As soon as the Sodexho laundry opens, member hospitals will stop sending wash to Syracuse and Erie, Pa., as some do now.

"This has been a landmark project," said Kevin Connor, executive director of the alliance. The president of Erie County Medical Center also spoke at the meeting. His hospital's laundry burned more than a month ago. The new washing factory will save him from investing in new equipment.

"What you heard about today is exactly what Buffalo needs," said Michael Young of ECMC.

Buffalo General, which has 45 staffers doing laundry, will relocate workers to the new site, said Myra Holiday, a union chairwoman who came to listen. Long-term employees will have a shot at promotions and becoming foremen and supervisors.

"It will open up opportunities for others in this community," she said. "It's a very good thing."

A linen staffer from Women and Children's Hospital also came to the conference to find out more about how this change might affect her and two others who distribute hundreds of clean sheets and towels everyday.

Cheryl Moses said she was reassured that the staff would remain to tend sheets that will soon be washed locally instead of out of town.

After making a career of linen service, working her way up to supervisor after starting at a now-closed Jefferson Avenue plant, she said it is an under-appreciated trade.

"It's a major part of health care," Moses said. "They need linens, clean linens, everyday."

e-mail: mkearns@buffnews.com

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